8 October: Reflections on our trip

Author: Mr A

Location: Atlanta, Georgia & Dallas, Texas, USA

I like to believe a holiday should change you in some way. For Catherine and I, this trip across the US has certainly had an impact on us. We have made some new friends, learnt some new things (like that gravy isn’t always brown, and kettles are not a universally recognised essential item for your kitchen), and decided to review our plans for next year (more mountains less scrubby desert).The America we have met on this trip is one full of kind, respectful people (no..we didn’t meet any politicians). We had so many instances of people (friends and strangers) go out of their way to be thoughtful and courteous. When you read the headlines focusing on the negative headlines from here, as elsewhere, its easy to forget a country is made up of individuals. It’s hard not to generalise about the “behaviour” of groups of people from the same geography, race, religion or sex. As humans, we want the simple truths, but really we will find as much variation as commonality.We have so many highlights it would be unfair to call them out, but I will. Thank you to all the people who went out of their way to help make our trip here go so well. Those who had us stay (may your livers recover), those who helped us settle in (Deborah of the care package extraordinaire), those who gave us tips on specific things to do in their patch, and most importantly to the doctors who provided a “just in case” safety net for Catherine (who can’t get medical travel insurance for her breathing disease).

We saw so much beauty in this country. The mid coast hinterland of California, then the giant sequoia trees and the soaring peaks of the Yosemite. Then over to Chicago’s downtown area along the lake front, then the much smaller scale lakefront community of Cicero, then on to the unique geological area of the Red River Gorge and finally the majesty of the Smoky Mountains.We have eaten some fabulous food, cooked by friends or out and about, the choice of cuisine is almost endless. The option to not have sugar or dairy in it…a little harder. We sampled some amazing wines in California (Dave and SJ, Susan and Joe – you have such great taste!), and mind bending cocktails and bourbon courtesy of the Chases in Cicero.Thank you for your hospitality America. It’s time to return to Sydney, and the life and friends we have there, but we are certain we shall return.

7 October: The iSGS 1000…

Author: Mrs A

Location: Atlanta, Georgia, USA

It was finally time for the grand finale of our USA trip, with two events organised by Vanderbilt University as part of the idiopathic subglottic stenosis research study I am a part of. Our morning commenced with brunch at Ventana’s, a restaurant overlooking Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park with great views of the city.

It was a rare opportunity to meet many of the members of the Facebook support group I founded 9 years ago, all with so many interesting stories and backgrounds. One lady even brought me gifts and the offer of a place to stay 20 minutes from Niagara Falls, should we come back this way! I think Mark and I may well take up that offer one day.After many cups of tea and a proper southern breakfast (Mr A at least tried grits with cheese and maple syrup – an odd combination I thought!), we all went our separate ways.

I returned to the hotel and met with Dr Alexander Gelbard, program coordinator, key researcher and ENT surgeon extraordinaire to discuss and plan my presentation for the evening’s session, as well as talk through what was coming out from their findings.

Time went quickly and no sooner had I freshened up and changed it was time to head to the next venue for the evening’s presentation. This session was attended by a number of ENT surgeons from all over the USA as well as additional patients.

I caught up with Alex and his colleague Dr David Francis before we got started.I presented a few slides first, talking about the group and some thoughts I have for future opportunities with treatment and information, then Dr Gelbard and Dr Francis presented their findings from three years of longitudinal research with patients.

Their findings showed there are clear differences in success rate between different surgery options, with one medical centre in particular having innovated their technique to help patients last longer between surgeries. Sadly at this stage there is no cure for this disease, but this is still a fantastic step towards that.There is much more opportunity for more research and studies ahead. We’ve funded a further two years of data collection from the iSGS 1000, but more funding is required to enable clinical trials in the future. We’re hoping to somehow set up a charitable foundation to help fund this, and I have no doubt Alex and David will be keeping an eye out for any more grants they can apply for.

I hope this is not my last opportunity to come back to the USA and work with these fabulous doctors. I’ll just have to find a sponsor for the next time! Again, it was great to chat to several ladies after the presentations.

Once all this was over, the adrenaline died down and I was exhausted. It was back to our luxurious hotel and to collapse with Mark and some Netflix for the remainder of the evening.

Tomorrow we commence our huge trek back across the world to Australia.

6 August: Arriving in Atlanta

Author: Mr A

Location: Atlanta, Georgia, USA

We had a smooth trip down from the Smoky Mountains right to downtown Atlanta – all freeway bar the last 3km – I couldn’t help but contrast with driving down from the Blue Mountains to Sydney – a similar distance that would have taken 3 or 4 times as long.

We dropped off the luggage at our hotel – and wow – to stay at a “fancy” hotel again with people who carry your luggage – quite a treat. We really appreciated the luxury after all but one of our motel/hotel stays on this trip have been pretty ordinary. A short drive and we dropped off the car – there was some confusion as we had changed the odometer to read kilometres and they thought we had driven thousands of miles…all became clear and we settled into our lovely hotel for two nights.

Lunch was required, we wandered up the road, guided by Trip Advisor, to consume our first burger of the trip. We have resisted so far, but the lure of a “bison burger” was too much. We dived in.Catherine spent the afternoon preparing for her presentation tomorrow. I went for a wander, heading for Centennial Park. A bloke sidled up to me and said “Give me 20 bucks or I’ll cut you!”. Not an ideal situation, to say the least. Doesn’t he realise the shocking exchange rate?

I told him to f@!k off, really without thinking, and he did, which was good. I retired to the hotel…Dinner was a very pleasant affair with two of the people we have met already on our travels who come to Atlanta for the conference Catherine is speaking at (Deborah from Pasadena and Kim from Yosemite), and two people who work for Vanderbilt University (Cheryl and Kate) who are organising the conference and providing support and guidance for the research team.Travel for me is so much about meeting new people and getting a glimpse into their lives. Tonight was a great example of how rewarding that is.

4-5 October: Returning to the Smoky Mountains

Author: Mrs A

Thursday location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee, USA

We worked out we could fit in one more national park before we head to Atlanta for the weekend. We farewelled our lovely lodge in Kentucky and headed south into Tennessee.The drive was winding and picturesque, and before long we were pulling into Gatlinburg.

Mark and I last visited here in December 2004 along with my dad, sisters and brother – then it was sleepy, cold and snowy and full of Christmas lights and slippery icy pathways.

This time everything was open (and it is somewhat of a circus of a town, full of amusements, novelties, sugary confectionary and fairground rides) and had 90% humidity and 30+degrees centigrade. A town of extreme seasonal contrasts! Although this is not our usual thing, we decided to embrace its garishness for just one afternoon, and took to the streets to explore.

Lunch was a southern affair, with a jambalaya (Creole rice pilaf served with chicken, smoked sausage, Creole dressing and sliced French bread) for Mark and beef and gravy roll for me, and then it was off to browse through a few shops.

There was no wine tasting in this location, instead we found ourselves in a moonshine tasting salon. Oh dear. Having been alcohol free since Sunday night, it was a small test to see how the body would react to shots…nothing like breaking us in gently, eh?It was an entertaining session of throwing back small shots of various flavours, accompanied by amusing banter from our bar man, but there was nothing ‘wow’ about anything we tasted, so we moved on. Mr A was feeling brave so tried the same with some whisky tasting over the road too. That proved enough alcohol for one day, and we stuck to the club sodas for the remainder of the evening!

Friday location: Smoky Mountains National Park – Tennessee and North Carolina, then Franklyn, North Carolina

Morning again dawned early for me, waking shortly after 5am, so we were up and away before the sun really rose. Before long we were in the Smoky Mountains Information Centre getting tips on some good but not too hilly hikes.

We selected a circuit which we were told would not be too severe a climb.It followed the very pretty ‘Little River’ for half the walk, before joining another walk which climbed a short way into the lower mountains before looping back to the beginning.A very respectable 11.5km all up. From there we jumped back in the car and headed across the mountains.

The roads were really busy, with plenty of tourists out in this little national park. Apparently it gets about 11 million visitors per year, while tacky tourist trap Gatlinburg gets 18 million visitors! That means 7 million people who visit the doorstep of this spectacular national park, but don’t come on in…I’m kind of pleased really!

We drove on up to Newfound Gap, a high point on the range where we cross from Tennessee into North Carolina, and get to admire some fabulous views.It is also a jumping on/off point for the Appalachian Trail. This trail traverses about 3,500km (2,200 miles) from Maine to Georgia. We thought we might give it a go…or some of it anyhow…and get away from the crowds at the lookout.There was no choice on this walk, we had to head up right away. Luckily my breathing is not ‘too’ awful just now, so I wheezed my way up. It took seconds to escape the crowds, with the occasional walkers coming back our way.

Most were like us, just doing a short taster of the track, but we saw one couple bounding towards us wearing compact backpacks and I asked them where they had come from. “Maine” the guy answered. Gee! That’s more than 3,200km (2,000 miles) away! I would have loved to have chatted to them longer, but before we knew it they were off down the path never to be seen again.

The views up here were all the more rewarding for the effort.We walked about 2.5km before turning back, deciding 16km of walking and about 50 flights of climbing was ok for one day!

As we drove down the other side of the mountains we recognised other locations from our 2004 trip – the location of a family photo and where we built a snowman. Does any of my family recognise this location? Slightly different without the low cloud and with leaves on the trees 🙂 From here we continued down, finally settling in a motel in a little settlement called Franklyn. A local Mexican restaurant provided a cheap and quick early dinner, and hopefully we’ll have a restful night after all this fresh air and exercise!

This is the end of our road trip. Tomorrow we head to Atlanta for the last few days of our USA tour.

3 October: Kentucky wanderings

Author: Mr A

Location: Red River Gorge National Park, Kentucky, USA

It was a hot a steamy morning down here in Kentucky – 87% humidity and 30 degrees – sticky as…but off we went unfettered to bag us some more walks.The Auxier Ridge trail took us 8km out and back along a …wait for it…ridge…which was excellent for Catherine’s current breathing capacity and my old bones. It was another great recommendation from our mate Tom, although I think we only managed two of the five trails he suggested!

Check out these views though…Bird life was a bit sparse, a couple of eagles graced us with their soaring presence briefly, then haughtily exited stage right when even Catherine looked too big a morsel for lunch.

We had to make do with the blue bellied Eastern Fence lizards and butterflies instead.

It looks as though a lot of people camp out on the end of the trail, despite the signs forbidding it. Pity they can’t manage to carry a few extra grams and take a trowel to bury their waste. Some things are universal unfortunately, we experience the same in Australia.We staggered back to the car severely feeling the humidity, and retreated by mid afternoon to the wonderful AC cooled Cliffview Lodge. However, we had a bit of strange experience on the drive back, all of sudden really weird noises came out of the phone and car audio system while I was negotiating a tight bend. What the heck was that? A message came on the phone screen – it was a presidential alert testing the national emergency wireless system.I’m surprised Trump didn’t use it to send a personal message to us all..something self-effacing, well thought through and fact based no doubt.

1-2 October: Heading south to Red River Gorge

Author: Mrs A

Location: Natural Bridge State Park, Kentucky, USA

Monday: We farewelled our friends in Cicero and took the Interstate south, heading away from the flat cornfields of Indiana, briefly through Ohio and up into the rolling forested hills of Kentucky.

The changing scenery was quite beautiful, and the temperature climbed too, up to 30 degrees celsius by the time we nearly reached our destination at 3pm.

We’d booked in at a lodge in Natural Bridge State Park, but on arrival we soon found it was not ideal. Built in the early 1960s, we suspect the rooms have never been upgraded, with a strong smell of damp, every surface slightly sticky and swollen doors we cannot open…or then close. We were checked in for three nights! Ugh!Mr A did some careful negotiating, using my breathing as an excuse, managed to get them to agree to refund us the next two nights…we’ll be checking out in the morning and moving to a better rated hotel.

We had a short stroll around the area – it’s very pretty and extremely quiet, a lakeside walk surrounded by oak trees filled with birds and chirping insects. We’re excited to look around over the next couple of days.

Natural Bridge State Park is famous for several weathered sandstone archways, often over watercourses. It is also home to numerous other unique weathered sandstone formations. Very close by is the Red River Gorge and the Clifty Wilderness Area – all in all an area with much natural beauty.

Tuesday: The day dawned overcast and misty but that didn’t stop us heading out for our first hike to Henson’s Cave Arch. This was not a particularly exciting walk, but got us warmed up for a day of potentially hiking in the rain as the heavens opened as soon as we left the car! The arch is more of a cave, and the downpour livened up the waterfall which is often a trickle through here. We could see the area was not a stranger to damp conditions, however, with moss, lichens and a wide variety of fungi growing in the forests.

We checked out of our damp and smelly Hemlock Lodge and headed across to our new accomodation at Cliffview Lodge. So much nicer! A large, clean room with a sliding door leading to a wraparound veranda with rocking chairs and swing benches overlooking a beautiful view.

The rain started to die off around midday, so we headed out again to our next hike. This time we followed the recommendations from our friend Tom in Indiana, as he had selected some highlights for us which fit our criteria – not too steep or strenuous!

First of all was the Rock Bridge Trail, a very pretty hike through the forest with not only a stunning rock bridge, but the picturesque Creation Falls on the way. We were unable to get to a couple of the other walks he recommended due to bogginess of the road – we really missed our Landcruiser here. But after this walk headed to Gray’s Arch.More spectacular scenery awaited us there with just the very beginnings of autumn beginning to show in the foliage. We’re just loving being among these deciduous trees, reminding us of our lives in England, and the scenery and walks otherwise quite reminiscent of the Blue Mountains, just outside Sydney.

Our final walk for the day took us to Natural Bridge. As this is a long way up, we decided to take the chair lift to the top and hike back down. Thankfully by this time, the rain had really dried up and it was a beautiful afternoon.Once up, it was a spectacular view as we walked over this bridge, and then climbed under it to begin the walk back down.To reach the underside of the bridge we had to squeeze through a narrow crack in the rock, but the view was worth it. The geology sure is impressive here!Our hike down took us through more narrow, low and extremely steep and slippery pathways – we were so grateful Tom had loaned us two hiking poles.Before long we were back at the car, ready to head back for showers and food.

We’ve clocked up 11.5km (7.2 miles) and climbed 64 floors today…our fish and salad burritos were much appreciated, enjoyed with cups of herbal tea (still drying out after the weekend!). Fabulous – and another day exploring tomorrow, too!

30 September: A Sunday on the lake

Author: Mr A

Location: Cicero, Indiana, USA

This was our last day with the “hosts with the mosts”, Carol and Tom. We had a substantial amount of wine and bourbon to soak up front last night, so the Eggs Benedict for breakfast was much appreciated and left us feeling a great deal perkier.It was time to try out those wave runners (jet skis). It went a lot less well for me then I had expected! I just could not get comfortable with the balance and steering, so quickly gave it up and returned dispirited to watch the nimble Mrs A roar off with Carol.Tom and I headed out on kayaks. I confess to taking inordinate pleasure from regularly waiting for him to catch up with me after my dismal performance with an engine underneath me.The bird life on the lake was prolific, and clearly had plenty of fish to keep them well fed. A bald eagle soared over head (sorry no photographic evidence), and the lakes edge was home to many Great Egrets.After all this activity it was time for another lunch down on the water’s edge in their bar-come-pergola named “Margariterville” – yes they are Jimmy Buffet fans. We had a fabulous Chardonnay (Cakebread Cellars) with all the lovely dips and roasted garlic Carol had made.To end this fine day, our last with these guys for a while, we headed off on their boat to potter around the lake and watch the sunset, clutching Manhattan cocktails Carol had prepared for us “to go”. Dinner at the local waterfront grill was a fun affair, with Carol and Tom’s neighbours from across the lake joining us.What a wonderful community this is, with the lake drawing people together and giving them common ground to chat about and build relationships.We went to bed a little sad knowing this was the last time we would see these guys for a while, but happy with so many great memories from this perfect weekend in Cicero.

Tomorrow we head south down into Kentucky to explore the geologically unique area of the Red River Gorge.

29 September: …when the day starts with a Bloody Mary…

Author: Mrs A

Location: Cicero, Indiana, USA

Saturday: The first sight we were greeted with was a row of Bloody Mary cocktails lined up on the kitchen bench, which we sipped on as Tom cooked up his favourite southern breakfast of ‘biscuits and gravy’.It turns out the ‘biscuits’ are savoury dough circles baked in the oven, while on the stove top a mixture of sausage meat, flour and milk are cooked up. This is served with hot-pepper sauce and is surprisingly delicious!After all this endless decadence, we decided we should go for a paddle on the lake (Morse Reservoir) and up to one of two water sources.Tom’s boat was much longer and sleeker than ours and he was soon but a speck in the distance as Mark and I explored the shoreline. We spotted a bald eagle circling above, a red squirrel scurrying along the branches and cute little chipmunks hunting for snacks.We eventually caught up with him and continued our exploration up the shallower areas, where Little Cicero Creek enters the lake, home to herons and turtles among other creatures.Eight kilometres under paddle later, we returned to warm up in the garden jacuzzi, with our second cocktail for the day. This time Carol whipped us up lemon, lime and ginger beer with vodka – A Moscow Mule – delicious and served in ice cold metal mugs which fit perfectly in the drink holders!A delicious dinner of marinated pork loin, pumpkin risotto and fresh salad, served with some very tasty wines followed, and the evening finished with much laughter over darts and a board game. Awesome fun!

28 September: Kicking off in Cicero!

Author: Mr A

Location: Cicero, Indiana, USA

Friday: “Cicero? Where the heck’s that?” You may well ask…we certainly did when we arranged to road trip from Chicago to Atlanta via some old friends who moved from Kentucky to deepest Indiana and the small town of Cicero. The drawcard being this amazing house on the edge of a lake.

Within minutes of arriving the cold beers are flowing, then the wine, then the martinis, then the bourbon! It may explain why when Tom went to take us out on their boat he saw it had drifted across the lake!Oh dear…would you take a boat trip with this guy? But we did …boat retrieved we were on our way across the lake. Music pumping, wine flowing, what a life. The night just unravelled from there!What a blast to see these guys again, Tom’s the brother I never had from another mother.I have no idea what we were laughing at half the time but this picture says it all.

26-27 September: From California to Illinois

Author: Mrs A

Location: Chicago

Wednesday: Alaskan Airlines whisked us across the county on an uneventful four hour flight that left and arrived on time.We then made our way into central Chicago via the train, dragging our luggage a few blocks across town to our hotel as the sun began to go down.As we have found on the whole trip, the Australian dollar is really against us, and we’re paying a lot of money for not that much. Our hotel (The Freehand) is centrally located, but the rooms are tiny, with a queen bed squished up against the wall so Mr A has to clamber over me to go to the bathroom!

Size asides, it is in a location from which we can walk everywhere, and was just a couple of blocks from a bistro where we met another of my subglottic stenosis group members for dinner, Anita. It was great to hear about Chicago life from a local’s perspective, enjoyed over a glass or two of Chardonnay.Thursday: It was a fairly early start – I’m suffering from insomnia due to some medicine I’m currently taking, so had been awake since 3.30am! We strolled Chicago’s streets, looking for a café that might serve us a cup of tea. Everything was closed!We wound our way along the Chicago River which passes right through the centre of the city, leading out to Lake Michigan. The city was positively sparkling in the morning sunlight, whispy clouds streaking through the blue sky.The Navy Pier sits on the shore of the lake, an entertainment and conference facility with a large Ferris wheel at its central point. Again, everything was quiet and closed. It felt quite eerie strolling along the immaculately clean pathways, past perfectly manicured landscaping and flowers with hardly another soul around. The lake looks like an endless sea from here, stretching out as far as the eye can see.The city is surrounded by parks and gardens, softening the hard angles of the buildings. Chicago is a good looking city architecturally, every building complimenting its surroundings and neighbours perfectly. Looking back from the serenity of the lake it was hard to imagine the hustle and bustle, the honking horns, the sirens and engine sounds echoing through the skyscrapers.We eventually found our cup of tea, and continued our exploration to the Millennium Park and the art installations there.We did a little shopping during the afternoon, mostly window shopping once we had done our exchange rate calculations and realised it would be cheaper to source products from Australia.

After clocking up just over 15km (9.5 miles) of walking we allowed ourselves an hour’s break before getting ready to head to Buddy Guy’s Legends Blues Club. This has been one of Mark’s dreams for many years as a long time Buddy Guy fan.

We caught the subway across town, and in the club met Jack, cousin and nephew of our surrogate family in Australia. He must have been about 8 or 9 years old when I last saw him in the flesh – thank goodness for the internet allowing us to recognise one another this time! We had a lovely meal with him, and then Mr A and I stayed on to enjoy the show – Laura Rain and the Cesars. Spotting a lady sat alone on the table behind us, Mark invited her to join us. She turned out to be the very lovely Angel, fiancée of the drummer. The star attraction, Laura Rain popped out to say hello as well.It was an entertaining show, fantastic blues guitar, incredible singing and of course great drumming! Before we knew it it was 1am and we were stumbling outside to find a taxi back to the hotel. What a fabulous night and finale to our visit to Chicago.