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.

23-25 September: San Francisco – a brief love affair

Author: Mr A

Location: San Fransisco, California, USA

Sunday: From the moment we left the airport after dumping our car, we started to fall in love with this city. Our cab driver was so polite and helpful, our apartment right down at Fishermans Wharf was great (so lucky to get something in this location so reasonable), this city felt good!Our first night was spent at a beautiful Italian seafood restaurant courtesy of another member of Catherine’s sub-glottic stenosis support group and her husband, Lynne and Ron, and what a great vibe down on the wharf. We could get used to this!

Monday: We headed out to explore, with the traditional early morning mist clearing to reveal a sparkling harbour that we walked along for miles before heading off for a power shop. Some browsing around the shops later we headed off on a tram across town to a discount shoe outlet, even the conductor wouldn’t take our money! It was quite an experience travelling up and down San Fransisco’s incredibly steep hills.Lots of shoe bargains later, we walked back to the bay and hit an oyster bar – wow there’s some big fellas here and a very different flavour from what we’re used to in the Southern Hemisphere.

What a superb market down on the wharf, you could spend some serious coin in the delis here. We just brought some soft cream sheep cheese and headed back to taste test the wine we had been given made by the talented Joe – a Duke’s Folly Pinot – so smooth and just set off the tart cheese wonderfully.Dinner was an early affair (Catherine is feeling pretty beat with her airway so closed at the moment, and we had clocked up just under 12km (7.5 miles) on foot!). We had booked a Korean restaurant just down the road from our apartment and once again had some awesome food. California really has not disappointed.

Tuesday: Another misty start but we headed out to walk up to the Golden Gate Bridge, which was almost completely hidden until we reached it and magically the fog lifted and there it (mostly) was! This city is being so kind to us. I think she knows we have fallen in love.The dog walkers were out in force, although this guy seemed to have his own pack very well trained.A big walk back along the bayside and a lunch in the sun – I had been hanging for a crab chowder in a bread roll – and I got it! Sadly no dairy free version of that creamy number for Mrs A.Off we marched again and caught the ferry over to Alcatraz for a superbly produced audio tour. Thanks to our Napa friends, Susan and Joe, who encouraged us to book the trip – it is not usually our thing to hang out in the crowds but this was great. I wonder how many of the 1 million visitors a year have sworn off a life of crime after seeing this place?Now I have to admit we then committed a major faux pas for travellers and went back to the same Korean for dinner. Please forgive us, but we had seen another dish on the menu we both wanted and just couldn’t resist. We were home by 6.30pm (16km (10 miles) of walking under our belts today) and packed up ready for our early getaway tomorrow to Chicago. Wild things no longer.

San Fran – it was a brief dalliance, but we loved your vibe.

21-22 September: Great hospitality in Napa Valley

Author: Mrs A

Location: Napa Valley, California

Friday: We wound our way out of Yosemite National Park and headed north to Napa Valley. We stopped at a little health food grocery and diner for brunch on our way through Merced, before winding our way across flat plains and back up into the rolling hills of Napa.

Our next port of call was the Oxbow Markets in Downtown Napa, an indoor marketplace selling quality foodstuffs, including spices, cheeses, oysters, olive oil, fresh bread and vegetables amongst others. It was all premium produce (and a premium price of course), but we couldn’t resist sourcing some goodies to take to our friends’ house.We spent an afternoon catching up with Susan, becoming acquainted with one of their cats, Olly and checking out their hummingbirds on their patio.Joe soon arrived home from work, and we caught up over some delicious drops of wine from Quintessa, the winery Joe works at. At about $150 a bottle, this was out of our budget, but very tasty.Dinner was a California speciality, a tri-tipped steak, seared in a pan then baked in the oven. It was spectacular, served with potatoes, fresh salad and tomatoes and basil from their garden. The cheeky neighbourhood cat, Diego, joined in hoping to steal some snacks.

Saturday: It was somewhat of a slow start to the day for some of us, and we all felt for Joe who had to head off early to the winery to help host their big members’ lunch. Mark, Susan and I decided brunch was in order, so Susan drove us to the picturesque village of Yountville.Yountville has characteristics more akin to a French village in burgundy, with stone buildings, tree lined streets and market gardens growing produce to cook in nearby restaurants.

We followed a sculpture trail through the settlement, and were interested to see the thoughtful description of the first non-natives to settle in the area (in Australia, we far too often see the European settlers described as the ‘early’ settlers, ignoring the 60,000 years of habitation by Aboriginal populations!).Mark chose the special once we had reached our lunch location, despite not really understanding what he was ordering. When asking about ‘Masa Harina’ we were told ‘it’s a bit like grits’ – which made absolutely no sense at all. Mr A says it was like a savoury tapioca. He gave it five stars!

Susan then took us to Trefethen Vineyards to show us the incredible feat of engineering there. During the 2014 earthquake, the supporting beams for the wine cellar and tasting room had cracked, leaving it leaning and about to collapse. The building is now supported by a huge steel frame.

Napa is on the cusp of harvest time here, and the vines are positively creaking under the weight of grapes.It seems crazy to be in Napa and not going wine tasting, but someone (Mr A) needed an afternoon nap, so we returned home for just that. I chilled out in the garden with one of Susan and Joe’s cats, Olly, watching out for local birdlife.Joe soon returned from work, and we all got ready for a night out. Walking through Napa town, you could have been mistaken for thinking we were somewhere in northern Italy, with the sun setting over the hills and the gondola paddling up the Napa River. It has a lovely feel, with nice boutiques and a buzzing atmosphere.

Somehow we again managed to avoid wine! First calling in to a little brewery for some local drops, and then to the most delicious Mexican restaurant, where we stuck to the Margaritas all night!But we don’t mind one bit – this visit has all been about visiting Susan and Joe, and the great company and laughter we enjoyed with them has all been worth it. This is one area we’d be keen to come back to again.

19-20 September: Breathless in Yosemite

Author: Mr A

Location: Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Wednesday: Yes, Yosemite took our breath away, both literally and figuratively. We had been recommended to drive straight up to a lookout called Glacier Point on entering the park – which we did – and both of us found it hard to comprehend the sheer majesty of this view.But that’s not the only thing that left us breathless. Plenty of “wow” noises later we took a little walk along the cliff top and immediately noticed the effect of the thinner air – we were at 7,200 feet (3,200 metres). Catherine has enough trouble at sea level with her dinky constricted airway, so at this altitude noticed the difference. My nose started bleeding, something I always seem to experience at higher altitude, and with a nose my size its quite something!

We made our way down to the valley floor, via yet another switchback road, which I am mostly enjoying driving in our little Ford Escape, although when suddenly a car coming the other direction veers into our lane (as has happened several times), it isn’t quite as much fun. I think there are quite a few visitors here who haven’t seen many bends in their driving career, based on how slow some of them are and the number of brake lights slamming on for a gentle corner.

Our hotel turned out to be a concrete monstrosity that put us in a room next to the road. A little negotiation and we ended up moving to a river view room that was magic.

Thursday: A very peaceful sleep later and we were up to meet a local resident, Kim, Catherine knows through her Facebook support group.She gave us some great tips for how to spend our day, and after a chat with her we sped off up into the high country of the Sierra Nevada. What a drive it was…again. Check out these views along the way.We managed to puff and wheeze our way on a short 7km (4.5 mile) walk. We are now at over 8,600 feet (2,620 metres) but motivated by these incredible views to keep going – I had little excuse other than my cold and lack of strenuous exercise recently.Catherine here is sampling some naturally carbonated spring water, fresh out of the mountainside – delicious too…!We could spend weeks just exploring this one area – months more likely. The walking possibilities seem endless. It’s certainly putting the US on our radar for a longer trip.

So then it was a hairy drive back down to the valley floor, I’ve got a terrible head for heights, so was driving staring fixedly ahead and refusing to look at the sheer drop, all too close to our wheels for my liking.I breathed a sigh of relief (and I’m sure Catherine did!) when we reached the valley floor without incident, and then she captured these shots as the sun was dipping.We will leave with these photos to remind us of the beauty of this place – it’s busy, yes (although Kim tells us there are 25% less visitors post the bush fires here last July) – but a short walk from our car and we were pretty much on our own – there’s a lot of space to find some solitude away from the crowds that are hugging the valley floor.

Meanwhile, in Sydney, Australia

Apparently temperatures have PLUMMETED to below 30 degrees centigrade and Princess Tassie is needing reinforced bedding…

18 September: Into our second Kings Canyon for the year

Author: Mrs A

Location: Kings Canyon National Park, California, USA

When we were exploring Kings Canyon in central Australia just over a month ago we had no idea there was another one over the pond in the US awaiting our visit. California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are somewhat entwined, you drive from one to the other almost without realising.

In contrast to Australia’s Kings Canyon’s weathered ancient sand dunes, California’s towers over us, its highest peak at 4,020 metres almost double Mount Kosciusko, Australia’s tallest summit.Our first glimpses left us again spellbound, as we left behind the tall sequoia trees and climbed into mountainous country. Kings Canyon has been described as a ‘close competitor to Yosemite’ – and being our destination for the next couple of days, we are almost beside ourselves with anticipation of what might be ahead!

We drove through twisty turning mountain roads as far as we could go, opting to attempt a hike at the end.We followed the Kings River for a couple of kilometres before we were stopped by a couple of National Parks officials about to detonate some fallen rocks. In interest of our health and making it safely beyond today, we retraced our steps to the car and drove on.

Our next destination was Roaring River Falls, where we chose to enjoy lunch – a sandwich and fruit prepared by our hotel. The falls were pretty impressive, and you could imagine how spectacular they would be in spring, after the snow melt.Not much further along the road was Grizzly Falls, plunging deep down into the valley.Despite the name, there are no Grizzly bears in these parts, only black bears. We have seen many warning signs about them but they are one furry critter we are yet to spot. Our eyes are regularly peeled and camera at the ready.

From here, we began climbing out of the valley and up back towards Sequoia, via many spectacular lookouts.Back in Sequoia National Park, it was hard to miss out yet more giant trees, helping us feel miniature in their presence.It is so hard to capture just how huge these trees are and the feeling you get walking here…you’ll just have to come and see for yourself!

We continued back to our hotel for the night, back to a hot shower, delicious cooked meal and some relaxation. Tomorrow – off to adventures new.

17 September: In the Land of Giants – the Sequoia National Park

Author: Mr A

Location: Sequoia National Park, California, USA

We were both very excited by what lay ahead today. We were going to drive up into the world famous Sequoia National Park, home of the largest trees on the planet. Not the tallest or even the widest, but the most weight of wood in any one tree.

I was also pleased, but less excited, to be using my senior’s pass for US national parks, which you become eligible for over here at 62, so just scraped in. Saved us $60 on this one trip alone. One of many great thoughtful tips from Catherine’s friend Deborah, I obviously looked like I would qualify 🙂

It was a fabulous twisty turny drive up the Generals Highway into the park, and so nice to be driving a nimble little car and not towing a van!

Our first stop was the Information Centre, from which we wandered off into the forest and did a short walk to what was called Sunset Rock. As it was 11am it wasn’t crowded…that suited us just fine. We got a feel for the different flora and fauna here, with bushy tailed squirrels, for instance, darting around.Then we walked down into a grove of sequoia trees. I caught myself holding my breath. The aura and precense these giant trees have is palpable. To see them soaring up to 80 metres above our heads, and to think some of them are over 3,000 years old and still growing, I think they are a reminder from Mother Nature of our place in the world.I drove us on up into the heart of the park, to the area the famous US naturalist John Muir named when he first came across it in 1875 the “Giant Forest”. Not one to joke around, he had it spot on, as this area has the largest collection of the massive trees in the whole park, including the tree that is the single largest living entity on this earth, the General Sherman tree.We were just mesmerised. Every time I looked down at my feet then looked up again my eyes took a moment to adjust to the perspective, with stands of these incredible trees just dominating everything. Look at this photo for instance – “Honey I shrunk Mr A”!We then spotted a creature that looked like a rather portly marmot. Much larger than the ones we saw in France. Clearly he had been on the all you can eat High Sierra buffet!It was all too quickly time to head off to our lodging for the night, the Montecito Sequoia Lodge, high up in the park at 2,286 metres (7,500 feet). It described itself as “rustic” – and it is – delightfully so.

A ski lodge in winter, we have a cosy room with all we need. Better still, free wine and cheese tasting! I was less excited to see both reds were Zinfandels, but, I soldiered on, and even bravely consumed Catherine’s for her. We are even allowed to bring our own wine to dinner, how good is that. The food was in the help yourself to buffet style, great for Catherine who could avoid all the dairy contaminated options and still have plenty of choice. We are happy chappies…particularly with this incredible view from outside the dining room at sunset…just wow. Americans do this type of expereince really, really well. I vote we send a plane load of Aussie outback operators over here for some valuable learnings.

16 September: Feasting with friends in the sunshine

Author: Mrs A

Location: Atascadero and Three Rivers, California, USA

Sunday: After a light breakfast it was time for a jacuzzi. Does life get any better than this? Mr A and I then packed up the car and we all headed back to the Paso Robles wine district and Niner Wine Estates for lunch.Set in beautifully landscaped grounds and housed in a modern stone building, lunch was served outside on a courtyard. The estate grows much of its own produce as well as all the wine served, with a philosophy of sourcing local and in season produce.Lunch was delicious – every ingredient carefully chosen and perfectly prepared. Incredible wine also accompanied our food…the perfect ingredients for a long lazy afternoon.However, Mr A and I were heading off, aiming for our next destination inland. Dave, SJ, Tim and Moki accompanied us into Paso Robles to the supermarket, where we farewelled our friends and headed off.We drove through ever changing scenery to Three Rivers, a little settlement in the foothills of Sequoia National Park.

We’ve holed up in a hotel for the night, a simple meal of tomatoes, hummus and wraps accompanied by Netflix. All is good – we’re looking forward to exploring more tomorrow once we’re in the national park proper.

15 September: A taste of California’s Central Coast

Author: Mrs A

Location: Atascadero, California, USA

Saturday: Our day commenced with a walk and hummingbirds, as all good Saturday mornings should! Mr A took Moki for a short walk, and then came back for me. We ambled down the road, checking out the fabulous views and houses tucked away into the hillsides. We decided that Dave and SJ have the best view in the neighbourhood.Back at the house, SJ had put some food out for the birds, and feathered friends flocked to their feast. The house is surrounded by nectar producing flowers, many we recognise from Australia, such as the kangaroo paw. This was a real favourite of the tiny sapphire green birds.Before long, Tim and Dave had returned from their 80km cycle (!) and were feeling ravenous for lunch, so we piled into a couple of cars and headed 30 minutes towards the coast to the fishing town of Morro Bay. Morro Bay is known for the huge volcanic rock which sits at the entrance of the bay, and the very active sea otter population, attracted to the fish in the bay as well as the discarded scraps.

Fish and chips and a dozen oysters were called for, consumed in a waterside café complete with karaoke blues singer. It was a fun atmosphere and delicious food.After food we wandered along the waterfront looking for sea otters. They were not hard to spot, great little fishers, swimming on their backs to better eat their catch, often chased by herring gulls keen to steal an easy meal.Wine tasting was next on the agenda, so we headed inland, stopping off at a couple of fabulous lookouts en route.We drove to Opolo Wineries, where Moki was allowed to join us in the seating area while we tried some local tipples. Tim and I were the only ones keen for a taste, heading into the busy tasting room to try our drops.

Joe, one of SJ’s work colleagues arrived to pick up a box of wine, kindly offering to cover the cost of our tasting and donating a bottle of wine to our travel collection. What a generous guy – everyone we have met has been just so lovely here.We finished off our day with some take-out from a local restaurant in Atascadero and trying a local brew. Another fine day in California!

13-14 September: The US trip kicks off!

Author: Mr A

Location: Sydney, Australia to Pasadena, USA

Thursday: This was the longest Thursday ever! We got up at 6am in Sydney, flew to LA, spent hours crawling through LAX immigration and LA traffic up to Pasedena, then went shopping, had lunch, more shopping, then dinner. A total of 33 hours awake with a quick 40 minute snooze.

Thanks to Pasedena local Deborah (Catherine’s friend though her Facebook group for fellow sufferers of her airway disease*) we were collected from our motel, driven around to organise local mobile SIM cards, banking and then to the local outdoor chain store REI, where I promptly got stuck in to some much needed retail therapy. Catherine wasn’t quite as lucky finding her size in things.Deborah also took us to the best places to eat, with Japanese dining at lunch, a break for a local brew mid afternoon and American grill in the evening.All were superb high quality food experiences with great service.

Mrs A almost committed a rookie error when visiting the bathroom though. There was a dispenser by the sink that was full of blue lotion. Catherine was about to squirt it into her hands (assuming it was soap) when the lady next to her, who seemed unable to speak, began gesturing enthusiastically. Catherine twigged…it was mouthwash she was about to clean her hands with! We then got chatting to Catherine’s rescuer and her dinner date. Everyone’s so friendly.

Pasadena isn’t going to be on everyone’s tourist list, we came here to see Deborah and escape LA traffic before collecting our hire car, but we could easily have spent much longer here. The higher elevation here means its a little fresher than the smoky LA basin, so a town grew up framed by the mountains that provide a scenic backdrop.

Location: Pasadena to Atascadero, California, USA

Friday: After some much needed sleep we headed down to sample our first US breakfast. Now, apparently the grey porridge looking substance in the photo is….biscuits in gravy. Not something I’m going to add to my roast beef anytime soon!

Then we were off to pick up our car. Driving on the right here we come. Deborah transferred over her “care package” for us – a slab of water bottles, disposable plates, cutlery and all sorts for picnics. What an amazingly thoughtful lady. She keeps thanking Catherine for all her help and support through the Facebook group, and was grateful to be able to do something for her. Don’t tell Tassie, but there was a little bit of time with Deborah’s very cute Pomeranian ‘cat-dog’ Houdi (Houdini!) before we headed off.

So all equipped we headed off north up to Route 101…minus Houdi!When we stopped at a junction just outside Santa Barbara, we spotted this young guy with an interesting proposition.A stop was called for in Santa Barbara, first job a quick wine stock up (we need to get used to the premium price of Californian wine compared to Australia), and then spotted a sign for “Cat Therapy”. We couldn’t resist of course. It was a business just about to open as a cat café, and the young ladies us allowed us in for a preview.The idea is they take cats from rescue shelters in LA and use the café to showcase them to patrons as prospective adopters. Brilliant.

Lunch then beckoned in the form of the number 1 recommendation on Trip Advisor. We can see why, after fish tacos with a fresh salad that were top class. Gee this is going to be a tough trip on the waistline!

Santa Barbara had a lovely feel to it with wide open boulevards, Spanish style architecture and upmarket shops. Clearly some money floating around here.

As we pulled away from Santa Barbara we were treated to magnificent views over the Channel Islands National Park and the valley below. Ever the tour guide, we received a message from Deborah recommending we stop for a beer at the Cold Springs Tavern, an old staging post in the hills. We took the short diversion – very nice…loving the locally brewed beers and the very cute blue Californian Steller-Jays. The views from the road were superb as we climbed up to our friends’ place in Atascadero where we will spend the weekend. Dave and SJ moved out of the hustle and bustle of San Francisco a year ago to this incredible spot way up on a ridge with 360 degree views towards either the ocean or the vineyards.

A superb dinner was spent sampling some local products from those vineyards, awesome surf and turf to soak it up. It’s awesome to see people like these guys so change their lives from inner city to rural isolation. Just check out these views and our first taste of their local hummingbird population.Our friends recently also moved to fur parent status. Check out this poser!We’ve certainly had a fantastic start to our month in the USA – how can it get better than this?

*Idiopathic subglottic stenosis