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.

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.