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Life on the road means never a dull moment

The other day I had my atlas out, looking at the route I’ll be taking on my next shop-profile trip for Woodshop News. Yes, I am aware it is quicker to simply punch in a town’s name using a search engine on my computer, but I’ve always been intrigued by looking at maps and my National Geographic atlas.

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At the risk of sounding hypocritical, I must admit I am amazed by the satellite imagery provided by Google Earth. I can easily find my house, the Woodshop News office where I am typing this very column, and the next few shops I will profile. And that leads nicely into a quick story.

I once called a furniture maker whose shop was about 2,800 miles from Woodshop News. While trying to get directions, I was looking at a close-up view of his shop using Google Earth and asked him if his shop was the building with the white van. He hesitated and answered yes, and then I told him his back right tire looked a little low and needed some air. He freaked, thought I was across the street or down the block. Oh, the little joys in life …

Anyway, back to geography. I was surprised to discover I have profiled furniture makers, cabinet shops and millwork shops in 34 states while at Woodshop News. And by the time this column is read, I’ll have visited shops in two more states. To our readers in the remaining 14 states: hang in there, I’m doing my best. It isn’t easy to get approval for a travel budget to Alaska in this lousy economy.

During my traveling ventures, adventures and misadventures, I’ve logged a lot of miles to reach some interesting places for shop profiles. I remember dogs chasing my car in Sawmill, Ariz.; horses grazing in Big Timber, Mont.; and quaking aspens in Aspen, Colo. Blame it on writing more than 200 wood market stories, but I’ve seen the scenery in Mesquite, Ariz.; Willow Creek, Mont.; Hickory, N.C.; Cherry Hill, N.J.; and Woodland, Wash. I can’t imagine the number of times I’ve driven on an Oak Street, Chestnut Drive or Maple Avenue.

It was a fun ride through the mountains to reach Walker Woodworks in Leadville, Colo., North America’s highest incorporated city at 10,430 feet. There I learned that vacuum bags for veneering were useless because of the lack of atmospheric pressure. That wasn’t the case at Byrne Custom Woodworking in Overland Park, Kan., where my interview with the shop owner was conducted 60' underground in an old limestone mine. Speaking of ups and downs, I’ve also covered the furniture market in High Point, N.C., and visited a Mennonite shop in Lowville, N.Y.

Other profiles have brought me to places such as Sioux City, Iowa, where I expected to find a glut of lawyers, but that wasn’t the case. Did you know that ships are built in Bath, Maine, not tubs? I expected Sparks, Nev., to be a happening place, but it was downright quiet. Battle Ground, Wash., is ironically named for a famous battle that never occurred.

Some other places also didn’t live up to their names. While in New Mexico, I didn’t gallop through Gallup, I couldn’t find a department store in Grants, the moon wasn’t visible in Las Lunas, and no one was named Bill during a visit to Pecos. I expected bad things in Black Earth, Wis.; excitement in Yazoo City, Miss.; and scary-looking people in Chuckey, Tenn., but none of that came to fruition, either.

I have driven hours to get to remote towns with names that, well, are just curious. Famous chair maker Don Weber owns a shop in tiny Paint Lick, Ky., and Phillip Greene builds extraordinary canoes in Round O, S.C. It’s been seven years since I’ve been there and I still wonder, “What’s up with that?”

Las Vegas is tops on the temperature chart at 115 degrees for me; the coldest shops are too numerous to mention. Many woodworkers in the Northeast rely on wood stoves to heat their shops, but for some reason (I think they’re too cheap), they’d rather be cold than turn up the heat or burn wood in their stoves.

The prize for the toughest pronunciation is split between the hometown of Gus Morley Cabinetmakers in Skaneateles, N.Y., and Tom Calhoun of World Wood Works, just a few miles from Haleakala volcano in Makawao, Hawaii.

I haven’t mentioned the names of many cities and towns in New England because, frankly, they are boring and named after existing places in Europe. Woodshop News is a perfect example; it’s situated in the small Connecticut town of Essex, apparently named after the county in southeastern England.

That’s about all the space there is for this travelogue. My next stops are Northampton, Mass.; Louisville, Ky., Evansville, Ind.; Dow, Ill.; and Columbia, Mo.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue.

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