Western Virginia and volunteer work


Now that I have a few minutes, I can finally explain where I was last week. I was participating in a volunteer mission in Clintwood, Virginia; for those of you who don’t know, Clintwood is in the far western part of the state, very near the Kentucky border, and nestled in the Appalachian Mountains. [1] The program is coordinated through St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Clintwood, and brings in various groups of volunteers throughout the summer to help out with construction and maintenance projects for local residents in need of assistance, but who cannot afford to pay for such matters. Now, as you can imagine, I obviously see the value in volunteering for the program, else I would not have participated, so that observation should be obvious. My other observations are mostly just reflections on the events of the week, things I learned, and other such matters. They may or may not be particularly insightful observations, but the following are what I’ve got (in no particular order). Enjoy.

  • Power tools are fun. Yeah, yeah, I already knew this before going on the trip, but still. Corded power tools are even more fun (the batteries on most such tools suck in terms of capacity and force). They are, however, considerably less fun when it starts raining. [2] Unless, of course, you’ve properly covered up your cord connections with waterproof materials.
  • Lumber generally comes in predictable dimensions; just don’t assume they’re the dimensions to which you may be accustomed. It appears that lumber supplies in the mountains aren’t quite the same as those available elsewhere. Corollary: don’t assume that your lumber is straight, either. [3]
  • Quickrete is amazing stuff; it dries fast, you don’t need to pre-mix it, and it is readily available in convenient bags. Just be forewarned: the bags are deceptively small; as the packaging says, they weigh 60 lbs. Don’t overexert yourself.
  • Related to the previous entry, an open bag of Quickrete can make an excellent improvised seat for a tired volunteer. Just don’t forget where you put the bag when someone else calls for it…
  • Scrap lumber can be used to make all sorts of things. Like furniture. If you don’t believe me, check out the photo in my post from yesterday.
  • Related to the previous entry, leftover railing picket scraps can be used to make a massive version of Jenga. You may want to consider sanding the blocks prior to playing the game, however; given the combined weight of the blocks, and the rough surface of the pressure-treated pickets, you may not be able to move individual blocks once they’re all stacked. Also, be forewarned: the sound from the collapsing tower is quite a bit louder than you might suspect. I suggest playing the game before everyone goes to sleep…unless, of course, you’re obnoxious enough to not care if you wake everyone up! [4]
  • Advice regarding your choice of footwear: non-slip soles can save your life, especially when you’re working on a roof. Having waterproof footwear is also far more crucial than you might suspect; personally, I can stand alot of discomfort, but I hate (yes, hate) working all day long while wearing wet socks. This also makes it easier to clean off one’s footwear after a day’s work, as you can simply hose them down. Having a rigid toe guard is also helpful, especially when you’re swinging around a sledgehammer, or if you drop a long piece of lumber, etc. Of course, all of these considerations tend to restrict choices to boots, but there are some rather comfortable choices available. Corollary: Wal-Mart boots can be both affordable and comfortable.
  • Related to the previous entry (and the one regarding rain), mud can be a very different animal in the mountains than what you might know from the lowlands. This being western Virginia, much of the soil is actually closer to the consistency of clay; as such, you’ll quite frequently acquire some additional pounds while you’re walking around a jobsite. You may want to clean out the treads of your footwear frequently, unless you’re not thrown off by the added weight; also, if you choose to do this, keep in mind that you’ll quickly re-acquire the weight, so you may have to clean up often.
  • Anything is stronger with a dozen lag bolts sunk through it.
  • 2×8 joists on 16″ centers + 2×6 floor boards = very, very strong deck. At the very least, it can support my weight while I was jumping up and down on it, and I’m not exactly on the petite end of the scale, if you know what I mean. [5]
  • A note regarding lag bolts: it is much, much easier to sink them if you pre-drill holes for them. Here is where cordless drills show their weakness; drilling through 3 1/2 inches of solid wood takes a substantial amount of power (more than you might think).
  • If you have a long piece of scrap 2×2 lumber, a roll of painters’ tape, and a paint brush, you can make an improvised extension pole. Hey, sometimes you just can’t find the store-bought solution, and this will work in a pinch.
  • Never climb a ladder without a spotter to brace it for you, unless you’re comfortable doing it solo. By “comfortable” I mean that you’ve had many, many years of experience on and around ladders, and know how to properly maneuver yourself on them without assistance. If you don’t have such experience, don’t try it; given some of the heights involved, you might not survive the attempt. [6]
  • If you own a CamelBak or similar hydration pack, for the love of God, bring it with you. They’ve very convenient, and will allow you to keep working without having to take a break to grab a water bottle. Also, keep in mind that if its summertime, you’ll be sweating. Alot. For example, on an average day last week, I consumed roughly 5 liters of water during working hours. When I was working on a roof on a similar trip last year, I consumed over 6 liters of water in 8 hours of activity. Of course, YMMV, but still. You’ll need access to substantial amounts of fluids, and a typical CamelBak can store up to two liters when full.
  • Bring a good book. Unless you’re using one of the two providers who cover the area, you may be without mobile phone and/or internet access while there. My provider does not cover the area, so I spent the entire week without access to the internet or my mobile phone. I did, however, enjoy the opportunity to re-read 1984 while there.
  • Digging holes in the ground can be a much greater challenge than you might think. Along with the clay-like soil, much of the subterranean matter is actually composed of rocks. That’s right…rocks. Nine times out of ten, that solid thing you hit when you push a shovel into the ground will be a rock; be careful, though, because sometimes, you’ll hit a water line. Or wires. Exercise caution when digging around solid objects.
  • Building permit? What building permit? I must confess, there is a certain liberating feeling knowing that we didn’t have to submit paperwork, pay fees, wait for inspections, etc., to obtain a building permit for the projects we built; we didn’t need to obtain one, in the first place. As an architect, I also worked on a project in a similar location where there were no authorities to enforce building codes. Obviously, common sense dictates how many things should be built in such locations, but I also understand the desire to have officials who can verify such things.
  • For those of you who are not early risers, there is, in fact, a 5 o’clock in the morning (o500, for those of you who are on 24 hour time). Its alot earlier than you might suspect. OTOH, if you’ve spent all day on a jobsite, it probably won’t be too hard to fall asleep at a reasonable hour (reasonable here being somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 pm, or 2200).
  • Related to the previous entry, sleep is good. Oh yes…sleep is very good. [7]

And that’s about all. As I mentioned, they’re not all particularly insightful reflections, but hey. That’s how my brain works. Enjoy.


[1]: According to the locals, this is not pronounced the way you or I probably think its pronounced. I’ll let y’all figure that out yourselves, if you’re ever in the area, though.

[2]: For the record, it rains frequently in the Appalachian summers. And the rain moves in fast. Prepare accordingly.

[3]: Strictly speaking, this applies to all lumber supplies, not just those in the mountains. While it is nice to assume that the lumber you pick up from Home Depot or Lowes will be straight, even in these stores, there are no guarantees. Though it may seem obsessive (and it is), check every piece of lumber prior to purchase; it’ll save you a hassle down the road.

[4]: Not that I’m encouraging anyone to do that, mind you. Honest.

[5]: Too subtle for you? Fine. I’m big. Er, bodily, that is…as for whatever you perverts might be thinking, well. No comment there. Keep your dirty thoughts to yourselves, thank you very much.

[6]: Thankfully, nobody on our trip injured themselves in such a manner, but its worth remembering. Ladders can be extremely dangerous for the inexperienced.

[7]: Yeah, like I had to remind you about that.

[*]: If you’re interested in reading a running commentary for the week, please feel free to check out the official mission blog for the church group I accompanied. Please note, however, that the blog posts were written by the teen members of our group, so if you note any grammatical or stylistic differences between those posts and the ones I write here, well. You needn’t ask me about it; I had nothing to do with the writing. That said, I think they did a great job, so I’ve got no complaints. You shouldn’t either, unless you’re some obsessive linguist type…in which case, I suspect you’ll find enough to criticize right here!


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