Leg 4: Southwest Chief, Sept 7-9

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Not long after getting to Union Station, we boarded the final train trip of this vacation, the Southwest Chief. As its name implies, it goes through Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, in the Southwest particularly, then up into a sliver of Colorado, into Missouri, a sliver of Iowa, and into Illinois.

I have to say that I think I liked the California Zephyr better. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good mountain range, but there was definitely greater range of landscape to see, including desert, mountains, rivers, plateaus, and yes, grassland. The Chief mostly goes through miles of desert then miles of grassland. Also, I slept through the one trip through high elevation we had.

There were some highlights, though. The people, for one. I had dinner on the first night with an elderly man, a Korean War veteran with loads of stories of his time in the Navy. There was also a guy starting his first semester of college in Arizona. His stop was during the early morning and his classes started just a few hours later. I wished him luck with that! There was also a breakfast with a guy going to play a gig in Kansas City but who felt flight too much of of hassle these days. And the couple taking the Chief to Chicago connecting to the northerly Empire Builder en route to Glacier National Park.

The second highlight was stars. Didn’t get a chance to see any the first night, but the second night was clear skies. It wasn’t perhaps the best view, given that we were moving, and we were often still pretty close to some light source, but it was the kind of star display we just don’t get in Connecticut.

The last highlight was my sleeper car’s attendant, Tom. Before taking this trip, I’d read that the car attendant could make or break a trip. I never had a bad one the three train rides, but Tom was definitely the best. He seemed to be a veteran of Amtrak, but was still quite personable, willing to get to know his passengers, and had a wealth of knowledge about the route.

At one point, during the mountain climb I missed, he was sure to point out that there might be animals to see and a ghost town from years ago. His second bit of knowledge was during the trip across Missouri, pointing out an old bridge and fort used during the Civil War. He showed an enthusiasm for these things and made the journey that much better.

I opted for the larger bedroom during this trip, and though I didn’t mind the roomette, the bedroom was better in many ways. I didn’t have to decide which thing to do first in the morning – medicine or brush my teeth – and having a shower and larger bed was very nice.

There wasn’t anything really new to report about food here, since I mostly had the same meals as last time, though I did try their salmon dinner, which was excellent.

That is it. The last entry will cover my couple days in Chicago.


Leg 3: Coast Starlight and Los Angeles, Sept 6-7

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I decided to get to the next cross-country train by way of Los Angeles by taking the Coast Starlight, a train that goes from Seattle to LA. I only took the Southern portion of the route.

After Billy Joel the previous night, my intention was to get some sleep on this train, but that didn’t really happen. Oh well. This ride did give me some insight into the extent of the drought. We passed by hundreds of miles of grass that had a dull yellow color to it, other than on the top of some hills and mountains.

The most exciting part of this trip was being next to water for a good extent of the length of it. On the train itself, the best part was the Pacific Parlour Car, a 1940s/1950s-ish style car with couches, armchairs, and a full bar. It even had wi-fi enabled when we were in an area with reception.

We got into LA’s Union Station about an hour early. I found my hotel pretty quickly – nothjng special – but it was near the hotel and good for a night. I’d had dinner on the train, so desperate for some sleep, I headed to bed.

The next day I got up early to take a trip to Santa Monica to visit Ed, one of my cousins. I got to see his recording studio (he does recording and the Santa Monica pier. We also had breakfast at this great Mexican place that also serves a traditional breakfast. They had like four full pieces of toast and a few pieces of bacon for about $7.00. That’s a lot of food! The pier was busy but not unmanageable, and I was able to see the Pacific Ocean and the promenade.

After that, I thought I should get back to downtown LA so I could get my luggage, which I left at the hotel and head back to Union Station. By the way, they need better signage for the subway. The sign says Red Line, but is the entrance for all the lines served out of Union Station.

I was able to spend a little time in the station’s Metropolitan Lounge, which was pretty swanky. After about half an hour wait, I boarded the Southwest Chief back to Chicago.


Leg 2: San Francisco, Sept 1-5

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So I arrived in San Francisco – actually, Emeryville, which is just outside the city, near Oakland – only to find out that I forgot to add on a bus trip connection from the trajn into the city. Whoops. Got an pass in the station and got on the bus to Fisherman’s Wharf. Not knowing the bus routes at all yet, I took a taxi to my hotel.

The Chelsea Motor Inn, in the Marina District, is part of a set of hotel that emulate a motor inn. It was pretty no-thrills, but I needed a place to sleep, and it was relatively cheap for a hotel in the city proper. It is surrounded by bars and restaurants, especially brunch places.

Just getting in and it being pretty late by then, I took it pretty easy, especially as I hadn’t slept very well on the train. Got some necessities at a nearby Walgreens and took a walk of the immediate area, selected a nearby Italian place for dinner, then went to bed.

Got a late start the next day due to wanting more sleep. I think people oftentimes want to get a full day of activities, but I think a late day here or there during a trip is okay. I’m having a very early day on Sunday, so it’ll balance out.

I decided to start with Fisherman’s Wharf. Before the trip, I purchased a CityPass, which got me access to several museums, a cruise in San Francisco Bay, and most importantly, unlimited travel on the Muni system of electric and diesel buses, light rail, historic street cars, and cable car trolleys. Basically, no more taxis (except, as of this writing, maybe on Sunday morning.

I took the cruise and it was a pretty good way to get an up close look at the Golden Gate Bridge, and some history of the city. Very cold and windy, though! In fact, that was my first lesson when arriving in the city. I knew it would be cooler than Los Angeles or even Chicago (making my clothing choices, if you didn’t know my plans, look like I couldn’t decide what to bring), and even windy, but I wasnt prepared for the intensity of the wind. I brought my coat and jeans, so I was prepared, but I tried to go out the first night without it. Rookie mistake.

I next went to the Aquarium at the Bay (my other option was the Monterey Aquarium, two hours away). It had a lot of cool fish and I got to touch a ray! I think they knew the game of which they were a part, as they kept coming right up to people. I thought the aquarium was okay for what it was. True to its name, it featured animals mostly from the Bay Area.

I walked around Pier 39 some more, had some lunch, and then decided to leave. I decided to board one of the hisoric streetcars. It was pretty much like one of the regular buses but from the 1950s. I up ended up in the Embarcadero area, thinking to o
ravel to the Transbay Hub, but I felt a little lost still, so turned back. I ended up grabbing a cable car trolley (no, I didn’t hang off the side). Without the city pass, it would have cost $7.00, but with the pass, it’s like having another bus option.

I got off on a street that had the bus I needed to take and found myself in Chinatown. When I salked to the bus stop, there was some kind of performance going on across the street. I later found out it was in front of the Kong Chow Temple, dedicated to the god of war, Guan Di. It was after closing time, so I’m not sure of the occasion. A private event, perhaps. Boarded the bus when it arrived and headed back to the hotel.

I either ate too many of my snacks, or maybe it was from my hotdog lunch, but I did not have a great night Wednesday night. Feeling kind of woozy, I just stayed in my room on Thursday and got some rest.

I felt better on Friday morning, so I went to Home Plate, a popular brunch restaurant near my hotel. There wasn’t much seating, so I thought there’d be lengthy wait, but being a solo traveler has its advantages, and I got a seat at the bar-like area quickly. I had a breakfast of pancakes, bacon, and apple juice. It was pretty good. There were only two pancakes, and I thought maybe there wouldn’t be enough to fill me up, but it did. The restaurant is also known for its scones, which it gives before the main meal. Not really having scones before, I thought it was okay.

After breakfast, I returned to my room to wait for my pickup en route to the redwoods at Muir Woods. The trip took about 40 minutes, with switchbacks that reminded me a lot of ones I experienced during a bus trip in Greece. The park was pretty nice, with trees that were younger than some of the redwoods upstate, but still really tall. Spent about an hour and a half there – way too little time to get very far – so definitely will have to go back someday. Returned to the hotel, got some food, and called it a day.

On Saturday, I traveled to Golden Gate Park to see the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum, an art museum. Also didnt have enough time to see either, nor did I see the Legion of Honor, another art museum. I had to get across town to get my ticket back to Emeryville, then to AT&T Park to see Billy Joel.

He did a fantastic show – a mix of hits and catalouge songs. He definitely still has a lot of the range he used to. Some artists sound terrible when they get older, but not him. The audience was also very cross-generational. There were people 18+ at least. Sometimes with older artists, you wonder if they’ll attract a younger audience, and he definitely does. Everyone was singing along and I could tell they enjoyed it, too. The park was in a great location right next to the east bay. Just a great night.

That’s it, really. Will have to get back to see the many things I missed, but despite being sick, I still had a really great time.

Next, a day in LA, then a train to Chicago!


Chicago to San Francisco on Amtrak’s California Zephyr

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Had a pretty low-key night in Chicago, what with a train to board the following afternoon. Woke up, got dressed, got some snacks for the trip, and headed for Union Station.

Got a cab to the station, which is in a quite scenic part of the city.  Headed inside, got some lunch, and located the waiting room. One nice thing about being a sleeper car passenger is having access to the station’s Metropolitian Lounge, which comes with nice chairs, better climate control, and it’s own access to the train. I didn’t have long in there by the time I ate. About 10 minutes. Oh well, I’ll have another shot at one in LA.

Finally got on the train, about 20 minutes before departure. I put my big luggage in the rack; poor thing was alone pretty much until Denver. Good for me, though, as I needed to get something Monday morning.

As you can see, my Superliner Roomette was pretty small, but it worked well enough for me. There are two seats, both of which fold down into a bed when needed, or when the car attendant comes around at night. There’s also a bunk above for the second person. There’s a single outlet, two reading lights, two overhead lights, AC control, speaker volume control, and a small closest. That’s about it.

I spent much of my time in the lounge car, which is equipped with large picture windows and a smaller window toward the ceiling for sky views. The entire point of this trip for me was to see the country, and so I spent as much time there as possible.

An attendant came around shortly into our departure to take dinner reservations, which I set for 6:45pm the first night. There were several options; on the first night I chose chicken, mashed potato, veggies, and ice cream for dessert. Amtrak does not skimp on its meals – not the chicken one, anyway, which was a very meaty half – and I left feeling pretty full.

Due to space restrictions, diners are forced to sit together. I enjoyed it, though. I got put with an exuberant older couple, and another older woman also traveling to San Francisco. The couple were traveling to a place in Colorado for fishing and other activities. They seemed to be heavily traveled. I think England, France, Iceland, and Sweden were all in there somewhere. Yes, I’m jealous!

After dinner, I returned to my room for a bit and then made another attempt at the lounge car. Unfortunately, it was dark by the and there was nothing to see, so I returned to my room to wait for bed service.

I can’t really complain about sleeping on a train, which I knew would present challenges. I did wake up every two hours, but I’d been doing that for the previous week when I was hacking up stuff.

After spending the previous day seeing farm after farm after farm, I woke for a final time on the second day to the short grass of Colorado, just outside Denver. As it was a longer stop, I took my chance to get in a shower, then headed down to breakfast just in time for us to begin climbing the Rocky Mountains. Met a nice man a breakfast who originated from Boston before also heading to San Francisco. Breakfast consisted of French toast and applewood bacon, and was very good.

Switchback after switchback, we climbed and climbed, from Denver’s 5,000 feet to just over 9000 feet. The trek through was filled with tunnels, culminating in the 9 mile Moffat Tunnel, which was the longest one of the 43 tunnels traversed during the trip through the Rockies.

After that, we had a short air break just outside a resort. Then back on the train for the next leg of the Rockies trip, bringing us to the Colorado River and three canyons. One of them, Byers Canyon, was the victim of a fire just last week. I could still see the charring from the flames, which went all the way over to the highway alongside the canyon.

After working on this entry a bit, went to the lounge car to see more mountains. Had lunch with a doctor, a woman who used to work in medical ethics, and a woman heading to Burning Man. Lunch was a fried chicken piece with onion sauce and potatoes. If I’d known it was fried, I may have selected differently, but it was still good.

Much of the rest of the day was spent in the lounge car, punctuated with a couple failed attempts to read a book. By lunch, we’d mostly passed through the mountains and were entering the desert, with its own rocky features. Took an opportunity to get off and stretch my legs at Grand Junction, CO.

Took my second dinner at 7:15pm, only to find myself with the doctor from lunch, as well as a nurse and another man. Had a flatiron steak with mashed potatoes and veggies. The previous night, one of my dinner partners sent her’s back because it was too well done, but I had no problem with mine. It was very juicy and an easy eat.

Returned to my room afterward, finally got a little reading done. Got ready for bed, but allowed myself a few minutes off the train at Salt Lake City.

We zoomed through most of Nevada during the night, and I woke up to us about to arrive in Reno. By the time I was all set for the day, we’d passed into California and climbed into the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Lake Tahoe area, with evergreen trees aplenty. I made my way back to the lounge car, where I spent most of my time. Had lunch with two women from Boston who started on the Lake Shore Limited in Massachusetts (this seems to be a somewhat common occurrence, going from coast to coast). Then returned to the lounge car one last time before departing in Emeryville with a bus then taxi to the city and my hotel.


Cross-Country American Adventure: Day 1

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I’ve made it to Chicago for a mini-stop before my Amtrak train to San Francisco, though it wasn’t without some minor challenges.

Stormu conditions in the area led to my first flight from Bradley to be cancelled. Luckily, I was able to easily rebook on a slightly later flight, which went off without a hitch.

Once at Chicago’s Midway, I had a little trouble finding the L train into the city, due to some poor signage, but eventually did. I was also worried about my luggage due to the flight change, but I needn’t have been. Southwest came through!

The train ride was low-key enough, if a litle uncomfortable. I got off at my station, and my suitcase would barely fit through the exit turnstile! With some re-positioning, I just got it through.

The hotel I’m at is pretty nice, with an art-deco look. No time for pictures, though. Perhaps on the far end of the trip, when I return here.

That’s it for now! Preparing to head to the train station for my journey across America!


HTTPS Redirects Must be Above Everything Else in .htaccess

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Recently I purchased and installed an SSL/TSL certificate for this website. Besides wanting to benefit from the security aspects of the installation, I just wanted to see if I could do it. Of course, CPanel, a common control panel on shared web hosts, makes it fairly simple.

So I bought the cert, got it installed successfully, set up the 301 redirect from HTTP to HTTPS, enabled HSTS for so that all page loads are served by TLS, and even went through the tedious task of converting all image source attributes to be served securely. However, I noticed something odd. When I went to try out my redirect, I noticed that articles and second-level pages like the About the Author page would not redirect when I tried to access them from the HTTP protocol. The homepage redirected, but nothing else.

I was baffled because everything I read said it was done correctly. Then I read that HSTS doesn’t work on the initial page load unless you apply for the pre-load program offered by browsers. It takes months to get on the approved list, though, and who has that kind of time where major hacks are now a monthly event? Granted, TLS and HSTS won’t prevent the hack of an insecure piece of software, but I can at least ensure a secure connection for any visitors. In any case, it still didn’t make sense that it would be an HSTS issue, since a redirect should just forward the user to the specified URL format every time. My redirect from www to non-www worked, so why not this?

I finally figured it out tonight. The HTTP to HTTPS redirect must be above everything else in .htaccess. At the very least, it must be above anything not having to do with redirect. In my case, I’m employing a caching plugin to enable gzip and other features, which also modifies .htaccess. For whatever reason, redirect on second-level pages will not work unless the redirect directive is the first one.

I couldn’t find this solution anywhere else, so I hope it helps anyone who might be in the same boat.


Coming Soon: The Cross-Country American Adventure

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My Route Through America

Anyone who knows me knows that although I don’t stray away from conventional trips, I usually only go when someone else is planning the details. Left to my own devices, I end up coming up with trips that are a little out there. Or at the very least, I plan trips people don’t seem to expect out of me. When I went to Bonnaroo in 2012, it was definitely a trip that some folks I know were surprised I’d take.

So that’s why I can announce that I’ll be going on a cross-country, three-city trip at the end of August and beginning of September. Not just any trip, though. A trip by train.

Continue reading »


#WorldIBDDay: My Experience With Crohn’s

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Today is #WorldIBDDay. I’ve been diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease since 2002, though I’ve probably had it a couple years longer than that.  Despite periods of pain, running to the bathroom, diarrhea, long trips to the toilet, and what sometimes feels like very unproductive days because I’m in and out of my office chair, I consider myself pretty lucky. My case is quite mild compared to some people I know. I haven’t had to have surgery (yet), hospital visits for it other than for blood work and when my doctor was based in a hospital, or needed to have ostomy appliances installed. I’ve had to work from home more often than the average employee (thanks for your understanding, TicketNetwork!) and there have been times where, well, the bathroom just wasn’t quite close enough, but not anything worse than that. Not anything physically, anyway.

I don’t say this to put up a “strong soldier” face, I just know that others have it worse than me. Actually, there are some things I’ve long sought to change in my case. The worst thing for me in all of this hasn’t been the physical damage to my GI tract, or the constant bathroom usage, but the psychological cost. I’ve always tried to not let the disease get in the way of me doing things and going places, but sometimes I’ve caved in and let it. I’ve had to cancel appointments and decline invitations, and have closed myself off to simple things like a good walk, all because I feared I wouldn’t be close enough to a bathroom when it came time to go, if only because there’s nothing worse than having to gingerly make your way back to the dorm/apartment/condo.

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Openly Secular Day: Yep, I’m An Atheist

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Today on Facebook, I made this statement:

So today is Openly Secular Day (http://www.openlysecularday.org/), an event that is primarily focused on atheists/non-believers opening up to other people about their life experience. I could spend some time saying I’m “openly secular,” but this description also applies to any religious person who supports the principles of secular government and other secular institutions, which is most people in my experience. Instead, I’ll take a different route.

I am an atheist, but I’m also a videographer and editor, a webpage creator, an uncle, a son, a content developer, a huge sci-fi/fantasy geek, a grandson, a moderate libertarian, a book lover, a nephew, a cousin, a travel enthusiast, an asthmatic, a Chronie (Crohn’s Disease), and an American.

For me, “atheist” is just one part of who I am, and there are millions of people all across the country and the world who can can say the same.

Though I’ve never exactly hidden it, I’d say I’ve been openly quiet about the matter of my lack of belief, though it’s no doubt been blindly obvious to anybody who’s ever followed along with what I discuss. Yes, I am an atheist, but as I pointed out on Facebook, it’s only a small part of what makes me, well, me! I do other things, I talk about other things, and overall I’d say the issue of belief or disbelief is a rather minuscule part of the profile of my life.

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The Day We Fight Back: My Letter to Senator Blumenthal

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Today, February 11, is The Day We Fight Back, a semi-organized attempt at letting Congress and the public know that we won’t stand for dragnet surveillance by the NSA. Here is the letter I sent to Senator Blumenthal, Senator from my state of Connecticut. I’ve sent similar letters to Senator Chris Murphy and Representative John Larson.

Senator Blumenthal,

As you know, there have been many revelations in the past several months regarding surveillance activity by the NSA. These revelations, though not entirely unsurprising in light of the ways we already knew the government interpreted the Patriot Act after it was passed in 2001, are nonetheless concerning to me.

While I understand the need to uncover plots by terrorist groups, I do not believe that these activities should be done at the expense of civil liberties. The NSA has routinely claimed to be sensitive to the privacy of Americans, only for a new revelation to expose many of those claims as, at best, partial truths. The revelations that the agency has gathered data from private data lines owned by Google and other companies, as well as its attempts to weaken encryption standards, are particularly concerning.

These actions and others give me the sense that the agency has an attitude that, if it isn’t already, is very susceptible to becoming ambivalent toward civil liberties.

As one of your constituents, I am very pleased to see that you are a co-sponsor for the USA Freedom Act. I am hoping that you will push for the passage of this bill in the Senate, and perhaps even strengthen it, to ensure that it protects civil liberties and does not become watered down in favor of the NSA and other surveillance agencies.

I am also hoping that you will oppose the passage of the FISA Improvements Act of 2013, at least as it currently stands. I do not wish to see the kind of secretive, dragnet surveillance that we’ve learned about in these past months be codified into law.

Finally, I hope you will be a strong advocate against civil liberties violations by not only the NSA, but any federal, state, or local agency that might follow the NSA’s lead in conducting widespread surveillance. Most of the nation’s attention on these matters is currently focused on that agency, but police departments across the nation are currently looking into the use of unmanned drones, and we must ensure that these devices are not used to conduct surveillance on citizens.

I hope that you will strongly advocate for the privacy and civil liberties of your constituents in the coming days and months. I believe the time to do so is now, while surveillance activities are still able to be regulated.

Thank you taking time to read my letter.

Michael Merritt
Manchester Resident