Palmer House

Renovating and Restoring Our 1880 Folk Victorian

Ahhh….Halloween, that most festive of fall holidays. If you know me personally, you’ll know (or maybe you don’t know) that I am a Halloween freak! I don’t mean that I like to dress up in costumes and run around getting candy on Halloween night. I don’t even mean that I like going out and partying during the “Halloween season”.

I like decorating Palmer House and dressing up in such a way that it scares the snot out of little kids and automatically becomes the coolest house in the village! Seriously, I’ve made little ones cry…and then I DO feel bad, but for the most part the kiddo’s have a lot of fun with it!

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I have animatronics, low laying fog machines, strobe lights, zombies, graves, skeletons…the list goes on and on! Last year, I made my most exciting purchase – a projector. This baby projects from inside my house onto mesh fabric hung in my window and makes my house look like it’s haunted.

Halloween baller status all up in Palmer House!

Halloween prep for Palmer House starts in August. That’s when I start going online and looking for new props, special effects and DIY projects. I make sure that I have the day before, the day of and the day after Halloween off from work, purely for set up and put away reasons. I never leave my Halloween decorations up for an extended period of time. Number one, I don’t want them getting ruined by weather. Number two, I don’t want anything stolen or vandalized. Number three, and most important in my book, no one wants to look at Halloween decorations past November first. No one.

I cannot tell you how excited I was to decorate Palmer House the first year that we were in the house! Prior to that, we lived in a town house and we got zero trick-or-treaters for three years. For some that would probably be heaven, but for a Halloween lover like me, that just plain stinks. So my Halloween decorations stayed packed up in my parents attic…alone, scared…wondering when they would be able to bring joy and terror to little kids again…

Yes, I’m sitting here laughing at myself.

Anyways, the first year at Palmer House on Halloween was a blast! The neighbors had told me to expect between 300-500 kids, and they weren’t far off! If I remember correctly, that first year we got 535 kids (And I STILL had candy leftover!). Our house was a hit! Even the adults got a kick out of the decorations! However, there was something overshadowing all that fun and excitement for me…the front steps.

When I started getting all excited about actually being able to “haunt” Palmer House, Chris stopped me in my tracks and said “Well you’re going to have to send the kids to the family room door.” What?! The family room?! When we have this amazingly deep front porch that will protect the animatronics from the rain and let the low laying fog spill over onto the ground creating an incredible and terrorizing effect?! No way! We were totally sending the kids to the front porch.

Besides, we had no outlets for all that stuff at the family room door! Sheesh…

“Those front steps are an accident waiting to happen. Some kid is going to fall down them and hurt themselves.” ………..What?……….No they won’t……….They’ll totally be ok………. “The tread’s are half the size they should be and the railings are starting to rot.” Well, crap. That was going to throw off my whole plan for everyone having a great time getting their candy. So I decided that not only would I be playing the part of the candy passer-outer, I would also be playing safety officer and reminding the kids to be careful and not run.

So that was that. Mind made up. So all night I stood at the door, admiring costumes and encouraging kids to actually come up the walkway and not worry about the seven-foot tall grim reaper standing on the porch while reminding them not to run and to take their time.

And then it happened. A little one, probably only about six, slipped on the second step and slid down the rest of them onto the walkway, landing on his bottom. I was mortified. I ran out to help him but he had already popped back up, no tears to be seen, and started running towards the next house. I asked his parents if he was ok and they laughed and said he was fine. Then, it happened again! Right at the end of the night! By now, all that were left out were the teenagers that were too old to be trick-or-treating. But hey, free candy – am I right??

This kid was probably fifteen and dressed in some kind of slasher costume that made no sense to me (but whatever), and the exact same thing happened. His foot slipped on the second step and he slid down the rest of the stairs on his bottom. He also popped right back up and said he was fine, but the jeering from his friends definitely bent his ego slightly. However, after two falls, it was clear that the front porch steps had to be re-built before the next Halloween.

I wish I still had a good picture of the front steps…again, playing catch-up on two year’s worth of changes on the house means that sometimes you don’t have “before” pictures! First, before we talk about how tiny these stairs actually were, a little education for those who don’t know: A stair tread is the horizontal part of the stairs that you step on, while a stair riser is the vertical part of the stair that supports the stair tread. In the United States, a stair tread is typically a minimum of ten inches. That’s big enough to fit any size foot in any size shoe, boot, heel, sandal, what-have-you. A standard US stair riser is no more than seven and three quarter inches. That helps prevent tripping going up or down the stairs.

In the picture below, my dad had gotten to the old stairs too quickly and I missed a good “before” shot, but you can see how deep the stringer (The supporting member running the length of an incline stair upon which the treads and the risers are mounted) is – which is to say, not very! The treads were about eight inches deep. You would think that two inches wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but to give you a better visual: When I went up and down those stairs to water my plants in the summer, I was waddling up them with my feet turned out like a penguin. No wonder I had two casualties that night! You can also see in the picture how the stringer and base were rotting away because the lumber wasn’t pressure treated.

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Dad bought and assembled a whole new support structure out of pressure treated wood and extended the tread to the proper ten inches it should have been. We chose to use the same material the porch was made out of for the tread and to cover the riser and the stringer – Trex flooring. Not exactly period correct, but I wanted everything to match and I never wanted to have an issue with rot again. We installed new hand railings (White plastic. Again, not period correct or what I would have wanted ideally, but I can keep them clean and since they will be out from under the eaves and exposed to the elements, they will stand the test of time. Whenever we renovate the front porch, they might be replaced with wood…maybe), which also brought the railing height up to code, which it wasn’t prior to this.

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love my front steps now. They are easy to spray down and keep clean, I have no worries about anyone tripping or slipping on them, and the railings are sturdy and supportive. Our second Halloween was an even bigger hit than the first with no falls down the stairs. These littler projects aren’t the most exciting, dramatic things you could do for a home, but sometimes getting the projects done that are the “back burner” projects feel the best because you know that they will keep falling lower and lower on the priority list. Our front steps were one of those. But shouldn’t the front steps of your home – the thing that welcomes friends, neighbors, and family into the place you spend your life – be the most sturdy, reliable, functional part of your home to carry you over the threshold?

“My soul can find no staircase to heaven, unless it be through Earth’s loveliness” – Michelangelo

I’ve been going back and forth with what I wanted to put into this blog post. It’s hard to make a post interesting when some of the improvements made to Palmer House took place two years ago and you don’t have pictures! Not to mention, sometimes the improvements are made out of necessity, and aren’t always the “prettiest” ones. But I think this post will be fun to read since it makes me chuckle when I think back on it.

When we bought Palmer House, we hired a home inspector and walked through with him. At this point, I had fallen in love with the house and I was terrified that he was going to find something wrong with the house in a major way…a problem with the foundation or the roof, maybe mold, termite ants, rot or nuclear bomb in the basement! I mean, the possibility for disaster was endless!!! (Yes, I in fact DO get myself this worked up over situations like these). When he was done with his walk through, there were only two problems he had with the house. “Only TWO?!” I couldn’t believe it! But I had to hold my breath, because again, the house might be on a sinkhole or something.

“You have a mold problem in the attic. Nothing serious, but the current owners need to pay to have it remediated before you can buy it. That’s the only thing holding up the sale, but you really need to invest in a sump pump with a battery back-up in the basement. You practically have a stream running into the pit where the current sump pump is. You loose power one day, and your basement is going to be flooded.”

A pit and a stream was right! There was a hand-dug hole in the basement floor and a sump pump had been dropped into the hole to pump out the water that was – literally – flowing into the basement. The day we walked through the house, we went into the basement and looked around quickly – but it was Christmas time. The ground was frozen, not wet – there was no stream to be found at that time. In hindsight, that was probably a good thing. Had Chris and I seen that on the first showing, we may have questioned the entire idea of buying Palmer House…a small creek in the basement would be enough to ward anyone off I think! Anyways, when we walked through with the home inspector, it was March, and everything had started to thaw out. The water was pouring in a from a small hole on one side of the foundation and landing right in the sump pump pit. Which made me ask the question, what came first – the stream or the pit? My gut was telling me the stream…

The basement was a wet one. The floor was damp, and the low areas had small pools of standing water. There was no French drain, so there was no way to get any standing water to the sump pump. There was a dehumidifier sitting on blocks with a hose going out from it into the pit. It was obviously supposed to drain the water into the pit to be pumped out, but at the time, the tank was reading full and the basement was a soupy mess. Apparently, we were going to need help in the moisture department…

Flash forward to about two months after we bought Palmer House. Chris had gotten home late and I had already gone to bed. Next thing I know, Chris is whispering in the ear to get up and help him because a pipe had burst in the basement. I think this is every new homeowners worst nightmare! I shot out of bed and followed him downstairs. This is where it gets interesting…

Now, what I didn’t tell you, was that right over the sump pump pit was the fuse box for the entire house. When I stepped off the stairs into the basement, I could see that a copper elbow joint had split and was spraying water all over the fuse box. Neither of us knew what to do. Luckily, the pit was catching the majority  of the water, but there was a puddle of standing water around the pit, under the fuse box, and of course right under the valve we had to get to to turn the water off. We had no idea if the water was electrified, and there was no way we were going to step in that puddle to find out. We tried grabbing a broom and pushing the lever to the valve closed, but the water pressure was too great against the valve for a broom handle (See why I say in hindsight I chuckle at this situation? There we are, me in my PJ’s and Chris in his work clothes, reaching across a puddle to push a handle to a valve while water sprays all over our hot electrical box). After only a few seconds of this, we decided to call 911 and get the fire department in the house. It was so embarrassing! I don’t remember exactly what time it was, but it was late…like so late it was approaching early. Our fire department is volunteer, so we woke up these poor men and women in the middle of the night for this! The fire alarm also went off at the fire department, so I’m sure we woke up half the Village! At least they wouldn’t know where the firemen were going or for what! We had two sprint units show up at our front door, thankfully before the actual truck showed up (I would have been incredibly mortified!). I explained what was going on and the two men followed me into the basement. We explained to them that we weren’t sure if the electrical box was compromised or if the standing water was electrified, and as we were saying this – the guy walked across the room and shut the valve off. You want to talk about feeling like a fool?? We said thank you and goodnight and apologized over and over for waking them up. Of course, they were very gracious and told us that that was what they were there for.

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In the morning, the man, the myth, the legend – my dad, contractor superior – came over, bought a $3.00 rubber piece of pipe, and fixed the broken elbow in about fifteen minutes.

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The fuse box looked intact, but it needed to dry out. We set up a big box fan and let everything dry over the next week. During that time, we bought a new sump pump with a marine battery back-up and hired my dad to put it in. We also looked a the dehumidifier, which was working, just not draining unless we physically emptied it ourselves. Chris hooked up the drainage hose to an air compressor and blew the hose out to reveal a bunch of built up junk. The second we hooked everything back up, the dehumidifier started draining into the pit. Yay! At least one thing was working! When my dad came a few weeks later to dig a proper pit and hook up the new sump pump, he removed four five-gallon buckets worth of debris from breaking up the floor and scooping out the existing pit. Two bags of concrete and a plastic bucket later and we had a proper pump pit! We hooked up the pump, got the dehumidifier draining and got the electrical box dried out the rest of the way. I don’t know if that basement has ever been that dry, ever, in it’s life! It was a relief to me – water is the killer of houses – and we had 138-year-old hand-hewn hemlock timbers holding up our house!

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Here’s the pretty new sump pump pit. Sorry there’s no before pictures, but use your imagination and picture a hole dug into the ground! The black box on the floor is our marine battery back-up, and the white box is our dehumidifier – definitely the thing that keeps the basement as dry as possible!

Luckily, we have never had use for the battery back-up as we have never lost power in the house, but it makes me feel much better knowing that it’s there! And up until yesterday (literally), we haven’t had to clean out the drainage hose to the dehumidifier and the basement has been nice and dry!

Let that be a lesson to all you old home owners! Make sure you have yourself a good sump pump with a proper pit, a dry basement, and a contractor that’s willing to do the little jobs!

“It’s not the beauty of a building you should look at; it’s the construction of the foundation that will stand the test of time.” – David Allen Coe

When Chris and I were brought through Palmer House for a showing, the one and only thing I remember wanting to change was the color of the walls in the mater bedroom. While standing in the room I remember turning to Chris and saying “These lavender walls have got to go!”. I have nothing against lavender…it’s my favorite scent of all time. It’s a beautiful flower. It is the essential oil that is constantly in my diffuser at night, but it’s not anything that I wanted on my bedroom walls!

There were other things that needed to be fixed about the bedroom as well. The ceiling fan in the room was off center, which didn’t make any sense to me. There was an odd pendent fixture on the ceiling, and the wall near the doorway was half sheetrock and half plaster with a weird cut in about halfway down the wall.

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To top it off, the sheetrock around the ductwork for the central air was built up so thick, that at 5’4″, even I felt the need to duck, never mind my 6’1″ husband! It wasn’t attached to the ceiling properly…just mudded into place, so the entire thing was falling down!

We hired the man, the myth, the legend – aka, my dad – for the job of renovating this room. At this point, neither of us were brave enough to take on any part of the plan we put in place for my dad to accomplish. My dad has thirty plus years experience as a contractor, and there was no one else I would trust my house to. We wanted the sheetrock on the ductwork torn down and replaced with new sheetrock that would allow for headroom as you walked into the room – and we preferred it attached to the ceiling. We also extended it all the way across the room to the opposite wall, which made it a smoother transition and more continuous and natural-looking in the room. Once it was done, we gained almost three inches of clearance! I also wanted the wall near the doorway fixed, and we decided to cover the bottom half, which was plaster, with sheetrock. When we removed the pendant fixture, we found a capped, but hot electrical box underneath. Instead of hiring an electrician to take care of it, we hard-wired a smoke detector in it’s place.

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We made the sheetrock hug the ductwork, and as a result we gained about three inches of headroom walking through the door. We also extended the sheetrock all the way across the room to meet the closet. This made the ductwork disappear into the room and the whole thing appear more fluid.

 

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This is where the pendent fixture was, and where the new, hardwired smoke detector is. No more batteries here! But don’t worry – there is a battery-powered smoke detector in the hallway in case the power goes out!

 

Other, small changes were made. We tore down and replaced some crown molding that was either falling down or missing, bought covers for electrical sockets that were missing, and cracks were patched in the ceiling.

Then…came my mistake and my lesson. Paint. My love. My hate. Ugh. I found that I have no eye for paint color. If you look at pictures of homes from the Victorian era, there is a LOT of color. Bold color. Deep reds, golds, emeralds, and amethysts. Those colors are just not in my color wheel for my home. What I wanted was a tope-y tan color that would match the duvet on our bed. I picked a color that I thought would work – Milk Toast. OH MILK TOAST, HOW YOU FOOLED ME!! We did everything that every contractor, website, YouTube video and blog would tell you – we painted a patch of it on the wall, in the corner, near the window and watched it throughout the day for a couple days as the light changed. I swear, it looked brown. It looked brown! We planned on keeping the trim the same color, as we didn’t want to invest more money on either wood-stained trim, or more paint. I mean we just bought a house people! We needed to pinch a few pennies! Anyways…I decided I liked the paint color and told my dad to go ahead and paint the whole room. I came home from work, walking in the bedroom and said “Oh my God, it’s PINK!”.

That’s right. My tope-y brown, with two coats of paint on a full room, was actually pink. I quickly ran to the computer and looked the color up. When I was standing in front of all the swatches in Lowes, I didn’t even notice that I had gravitated towards the RED section! NOOO! I had paid for the paint and I had paid for my dad to put the paint on the walls! There was no going back now…the pink was going to stay.

The only other thing that we agreed to keep, at least for now, was the new carpet that had been installed in the room. We know that there are original wood floors under the carpet, but at the time, we just didn’t have the money to put into the floors. The carpet was new and it was in great shape, so it was also there to stay.

Most recently, the paint color in the room has been driving me CRAZY. The bedding that we had, up until last week, consisted of a blue quilt, blue throw pillows with various patterns on them, a tope-and-ivory colored duvet with a floral pattern on it and matching pillowcases. It’s very pretty, but in a Folk Victorian with pink walls (barf), it clashed on both the color and modernity counts. It got to the point where I was itching for a new project, and I was to the point where it was going to come down to me buying paint and doing the whole room over or me buying a new quilt and new covers for the throw pillows to make it tolerable until we have the money to re-do the floors and re-paint the room at the same time. In the end, that made more sense economically. So I purchased an ivory quilt off of Wayfair.com, and throw pillow covers from Pottery Barn in muted tones that would work with the pink (Again…barf). The duvet stayed the same. Sometimes, I guess we have to settle for the temporary fixes instead of the whole shebang…

 

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Here is what the bedding looks like now. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any pictures of the old bedding…the consequences of starting a blog two years in! Here are some of the things I love about our master bedroom:

 

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This dresser was in Chris’s parents house. When we got engaged and moved in together, we sanded it down and put a couple of coats of polyurethane on it. It came out beautiful, and it’s a piece that we will keep in the house forever.

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I managed to catch two things I love about my room in one shot. The two small windows in our room are charming! The two Drambuie boxes came out of my late Uncles’ house. I use them like an end table and decorated them with books from his house, pictures of my grandma at our wedding, and my favorite shot of us at our reception venue.

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But THIS. This is one of my new favorite things! This was a hand-me-down from a dear family friend.

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And what’s more, it goes perfectly with my great-grandmother’s sewing stool! Plus it’s from the same generation! (Guest appearance by Cinder)

So what’s next for this room? For now, nothing. Renovations cost money and must come by priority, and this room isn’t our priority right now. But don’t worry! There will be other fun things to come! So stay tuned!

“Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram; The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ the sun, and with him rise weeping.”
– William Shakespeare

Thanks for joining me! Welcome to Palmer House!

First, some introductions. My name is Stephanie Palmer and I live in Palmer House with my husband of five happy years, Chris. I am 30 years old and Chris is 29 (I’m such a cradle robber!). I work full-time as a NICU nurse at the major medical center in the capital region of upstate New York and Chris is an automotive mechanic in the tri-city area. We love what we do, but we love coming home even more! We purchased Palmer House two years ago. At the time, I wanted a “new build, move in ready house” with all the bells and whistles. Chris was slightly more practical and wanted a house with good bones. However we both knew we didn’t want an old house, and we made that very clear to our realtor.

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I should have known better!

On top of being an NICU nurse, an avid kayaker, camper, gardener and a generally-anything-outdoors-er, I am a huge history buff. Give me something from Colonial America to WWII and I will eat it up! How did I not realize that the right house would need to be at least a hundred years old??

Palmer House was snuck into a pile of about twelve houses by our realtor on a day where we were going to do nothing but house hunt. Of course, I flipped through all the print outs of the listings before we started and purposely put Palmer House down as the last house to visit that day. There was no way I was going to want to live in a 138-year-old house. It was probably falling down rotten, with drafty old windows, a leaky roof, no air conditioning…ugh. What was she thinking?

loved the house the moment we stepped foot in it! The floors in the formal living room and dining room were obviously original, or pretty darn close to it! The kitchen was more modern but still had a warm, inviting appeal about it. The family room was open to the kitchen, but was nicely separated by two steps, making it feel like a separate space. There was a full downstairs bathroom and a beautiful screened in back porch and fenced in back yard that was large, but not too large.

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This is the picture of the formal living room from the previous owners. LOOK AT THOSE FLOORS! (All the photos of the house in this posting are from the listing and are what the house looked like when we bought it).

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Those floors continue into the dining room. I just about fell over when I saw that built-in hutch!

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This is the “working” area of the kitchen, and you can see our full second bathroom peaking its head around the corner!

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Our family room is right off the kitchen, making it a great place for holiday gatherings when I need to shoo people out of my way!

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The screened in back porch is the only place we eat from May-September!

Upstairs it was obvious that the floors were also original maple. They were exposed in two out of the four bedrooms. There was a complete cedar closet in the hallway that made me swoon and a stunning upstairs bathroom with walls covered in converted wood flooring that was painted to make the room feel old and quaint. The bathroom and back bedroom, we would later find out, was an addition made to the house (we think in the 50’s?). The “Red Bedroom”, as we now call it, was one of the rooms with the exposed maple floors. They were painted a barn-red with floral yellow wallpaper on the walls. Not what I would have picked, but I didn’t care. I loved it. The Master Bedroom was carpeted recently and was just the right size, and the “Blue Room” was the current owners sewing room. It was small, with the exposed wood floors and a small closet.

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One of the quirks I positively love about Palmer House is that the staircase is tucked off to the left of the house on an exterior wall…odd place for stairs don’t you think? Stay tuned…

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There were only two pictures of the upstairs in the listing of Palmer House, which immediately made me suspicious. This is the “Red Bedroom”, aptly named for the barn-red painted maple floors.

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This was the picture of the Master Bedroom from the listing. Those walls are lavender. We loved the new carpet…we hated the lavender. It was one of the things that was going to have to go!

Now, you have to understand, the house that Chris and I saw before this was a flip house that was just completed, with bones from the 1980’s. And I wanted that house. I needed that house. That house had everything I had pictured my house having. Vaulted ceilings in the living room which was open concept to the kitchen, new bathrooms and bedrooms, a finished basement, air conditioning, shiny tile, granite countertops, oh my! And I worked every angle I could to get Chris to like it. I even got my built-in contractor (aka, dad) to come over and walk through it with us! Between the two of us, Chris is all practicality and I am (mostly) emotion…at least when it comes to buying houses. All he saw was a shower pan not set in concrete so it would end up leaking, a paint job that wasn’t done perfectly, not enough bedrooms, and a kitchen and living room that were…ok. I was stumped. And I couldn’t sell it to him, no matter what angle I played or how hard I tried.

He didn’t love it. And that’s ok. Because Palmer House was up next. I remember clear as day being upstairs with him and our realtor. I looked back at him in the hallway and said, “You’re not going to believe this, but I love this house. I want this house.” We put an offer in at the Homefront Café around the corner and submitted it that afternoon. I wrote a heartfelt letter to the owners telling them just how much we loved their house and how much respect we had for the history of it. They had put a lot of work into it…all the “big” stuff was done. A new roof in the last five years, new windows, central air and ductless air/heating units in three of the four bedrooms, a new kitchen…all while preserving and respecting the character, warmth and history of the house.

Well it turned out that that letter sealed the deal, and our offer was accepted that evening. We found out later that the house had been on the market for several months and we were the only ones to put an offer in. Every other couple was looking for what I thought I wanted…new, modern, move-in ready. But I see the potential in this old girl. I see the love and respect those before us have had for her, and we are going to try to continue that in our adventures renovating and restoring her. I hope you’ll join us! It promises to be something exciting!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton