Sunday, July 30, 2006

Faster than a speeding locomotive...

I recently mentioned my North American Rail Pass adventure on Amtrak that I took in April and May 2005. Posted are a few shots of the Canadian portion. I will state the obvious: anyone planning such a trip should take a camera and keep it handy at all times, day and night. I was intrigued with the idea of snapping photos from a speeding train but, you need to know, they don't allow you to open a window and lean out.

When you contact Amtrak about buying a rail pass, be aware there is an "on season" and an "off season." I'm a senior so I started off with a discount and from January to June 1, fares are lower than during the peak travel time. We are talking about stretching out in the wide, deep seats in coach with lots of leg room, your luggage stored overhead and they even allow you to bring a bag of snacks on board although the snack bar is great and the dining car serves filling meals.

During my month of travel, I usually spent no more than a day or a day and a half at a time riding the rails. About only 12 days total for the journey. The rest was at destinations.

My 30 day rail pass cost $450 and I could ride anywhere they went, get on and off, stay however long I wanted to visit my kids or sightsee and the only restriction was I had to be finished by the 30th day. Cinderella at midnight sort of thing.

Oh, as I said above, one other condition of using the North American rail pass - it has to include a portion of travel in Canada. No problem eh, as I wanted to stay a few days in Montreal so my trip took me from Charleston to Washington, DC, a nice dinner in the station, wait a few hours then continue up to Penn Station in New York City.

From there I switched to the Montreal Special that hugged the Hudson River Valley past West Point and Sing Sing and eventually we stopped in the middle of a field so customs officers could come aboard to check our credentials before letting us into their country. Sounded like a fair deal.

Of course Montreal in mid-April had just gone through a harsh winter and I arrived on the warmest, sunniest weekend so far so the "terraces" were open for the first time and filled with very pale people dressed in shorts and drinking vast amounts of beer. I stuck with the excellent domestic as a Budweiser would be a costly "import." It was about 60 or so degrees. Oh, and they also all spoke French.

They were polite and appreciated that I tried to say at least a few words in their language and most spoke English in this very international city. It had been quite a while since my college French. Did I mention they were polite? Not haughty or rude as I remembered from a long ago trip to Paris.

The Canadian portion meant riding on THEIR railroad and I chose a 3 1/2 day trip across country on The Canadian, a recently restored 1950s jewel of a train that was beautiful the way trains were 50 years ago!

I chose to pay an extra $500 US so I would have a private bedroom, a shower down the hall and all my gourmet meals included. I enjoyed meeting my fellow "first class" passengers - many of whom were on a 2nd and 3rd trip aboard this classic transcontinental. It was better than sitting up in coach across the Prairies, up and over the Canadian Rockies and down into Vancouver in British Columbia.

I took The train down to Toronto to board The Canadian and after getting off the train in Vancouver, I spent the day sighseeing and eating Chinese in an upstairs dim sum place before getting back on Amtrak to continue my journey down the west coast. More later.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sharing Photographs in the 21st Century

In the "good old days" you shared photos by sitting with a friend or family member and opening an envelope from the drug store and passing around your hot, fresh snapshots. The black and white prints used to have something called a deckle edge.

Now it's possible to snap a digital photo then quickly look at the screen on the back of the camera to make sure everyone had their eyes open and double check that no background objects had become weird additions to the person being photographed. Telephone poles often grew out of heads in the old fashioned film camera = eventual paper prints days.

A recent trip up to Chicago gave me ample opportunity to use my digital camera and I wanted to share so many pictures that I created an album online. I used SNAPFISH, a division of Hewlett-Packard.

Several companies provide this type of extreme compression service so lots and lots and lots of pictures can be included in a file so small that even a person with a slow dial-up connection could receive them. It also is better than trying to send an e-mail with 10 or 15 photo attachments.

Just off Michigan Avenue, in the middle of Grant Park's newest addition - Millennium Park - there is a huge shiny monument/sculpture shaped like a giant bean. It's called CLOUD GATE because, from a distance, it reflects the fluffy clouds above and the very blue sky. When you come closer, you see parts of the skyline slightly askew and, coming even closer, distorted images of you and all the people around you.

It is an actual "gate" too in that you can walk through it and beneath it. Underneath, when you look upward, the sensory overload is truly awesome! You appear to be part of something created by the insane mind of Salvador Dali. That of course is the image I positioned at the top of this posting. I figured it would grab your attention and that's what a good photograph should do.

I believe I read, understood and followed all the directions on creating a link. Now my blog page says Chicago Album and that should get you there when you click on it. So take a moment and enjoy my/your July trip to Chicagoland.

VERY 21st Century!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Later in My Life: Space For Sale.

As already mentioned in a posting, I am a certified hardcore space nut and enjoy all things NASA. My opportunity to watch the maiden launch of the space shuttle DISCOVERY on August 30, 1984 was pictured yesterday and the impression might be that I was given special treatment because I was in the Florida Division of Tourism. That was NOT the case. Anybody can go watch a launch.

As you can see here, I was allowed access among many thousands of other people and we all were parked in a very organized, controlled - and safe - setting on a causeway at Cape Canaveral AF station looking toward Launch Pad 39. Very stringent and reasonable conditions were outlined on the back of the windshield pass and it was an excited animated crowd of young and old and families as the sun came up on the eagerly awaited third attempt to launch DISCOVERY.

This was early in the program - the 12th Space Shuttle launch - and in the next 22 years, the list would grow to more than 115 missions unfortunately marred by two catastrophic disasters.

A manifest for this 41D mission showed that an IMAX camera was on board - only the 2nd time - and perhaps we have seen some footage from this Discovery when we went to our local IMAX theater.

I was surfing the web one day and, on a NASA link, I looked up the Apollo Astronaut Commander David Scott whose father we interviewed when I worked with the San Diego Union back in the 60s. The son indeed was one of the 12 men who walked on the moon and one of the few who actually drove a vehicle on the lunar surface.

Looking around the web site, I found the 200 page manual on how to unload the Lunar Rover, set it up and align the solar batteries to power it up. It had a T shaped steering device centered between the two seats so either astronaut could drive and steer.

This is good to know because all three vehicles are still sitting up there on the moon, unchanged in the vacuum of space. The key might still be in the ignition.

As I continued looking at photos that had been sent back from the moon - and the site offers videos I haven't watched yet - I relived those wonderful days.

A few years ago, just before I retired, I sold advertising for the Post and Courier. Get it? I was selling space...Ad space.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"..and the rockets red glare"

I let out a great big sigh of relief as the shuttle successfully re-entered the atmosphere and came to a safe landing after a flawless mission. As an admitted "space nut", I offer kudos to NASA for letting us have a nose camera view of the final approach!

Years ago I was fortunate enough to be in Florida tourism management and arrangements were made for me to watch a shuttle launch. I arose early in Titusville and drove in the dark per insructions to a spot on the causeway about 2 miles from the launch tower. Among the neatly arranged parked cars, trucks and campers, about every 50 feet or so there was a speaker on a stand and we all listened to the chit-chat as they prepared to start the countdown.

After a brief 5-minute delay (a plane had wandered into a prohibited zone), we heard the familiar ....5 -4 - 3 - 2 - 1 and the huge engines erupted and WE HAD LIFTOFF! Moments later the loud roar washed over us.

The upside-down lighted candle rose majestically and slowly rotated to the right as it hurtled upwards and angled downrange above us, getting smaller and smaller at the head of a huge column of smoke. What a rush!

I finished the last of the coffee in the bright red Thermos that had been handed to me along with my credentials and headed to the KSC tourist area where, amid the garden of giant rockets and boosters on display for visitors , the PA system kept us informed of the progress going on hundreds of miles above us. It was only about 10 in the morning. My day on earth had barely begun.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Back to Photography

As readers of my posts know, I usually carrry a small digital camera with me and am pleased when something catches my eye that might be of interest to others.

Recent trips to Chicago and New York showed me how they handle the smoking debate that has started here in Charleston.

Many cities - and even states - have decreed that smoking will be an OUTDOOR event only. Some places have you counting steps when you move back from the bar.

The way that message is communicated varies and I wonder how America's Most Polite City will word its directions if and when such a decision is made. Any suggestions?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

New meaning for "Throwing a shower"

Today a plumber recommended by my faithful Handyman showed up on time - with his wife as a helper - and in less than a day, completely re-piped my 50 year old plumbing system from 1/2 inch to 3/4. They hooked up the 3" drain for the massive new 4' x 5' shower project, brought water to the waiting valves for the six showerheads, took out (and hauled away) the old 40 gallon tank water heater and tied everything into my NEW Rennai tankless water heaters.

A switch was flipped and continuous hot water flowed for the first time through the revamped system. But, as soon as you turn off the tap....the hot water stops. Then it waits patiently to be called on again. No tank of water being reheated over and over all day and night. They say it will pay for itself in energy savings...if I live to be 175 years old.

Last week I bought all the "trim", the chrome shiny handles and thermo-mixer and parts that will be seen against the tile. There will be TWO sets of adjustable body sprays, an 8" rain shower centered above which creates gentle raindrops falling on my head and a hand-held shower that is self-cleaning and adjustable from fine spray to pounding massage.

The people who will do the tile work are coming by later tonight to show me marble samples. They are due to start around the 17th and anticipate about 3 days to completion. Whew.

As they say on the tv show SCRUBS, what did we learn today?

IF you decide to use a general contractor, get one that your friends or someone you trust has used. Get references and talk with his/her former (hopefully happy) clients and PAY NO MONEY in advance. The good ones will take care of ALL the details, secure the required permits, hire qualified and dependable licensed craftsmen, proceed in a timely manner and help you avoid costly missteps. The lousy ones seem to convince me to hire them and sign on the dotted line. Make sure the contract protects YOU and not just the contractor.

My project stretches back to April 20 when my shower/tub was ripped out but now I see a light at the end of the shower stall.

I also see lawyers in my future - and small claims court - but that's another story.

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