chautauquaThe shrieks and squeals are ear splitting. James and Emily are running wild through the San Francisco Airport while we wait to get on the plane. They've been this way all day. In fact they have been this way almost since we got to San Francisco. They know we are going home and after nine months on the road, all they want is to get the last bit of our journey completed. They are excited and impatient and they are starting to go just a little crazy with the waiting.

Our last few days have been spent on the coast in a city that is destined to become one of our favourites. San Francisco is beautiful. Like Sydney it has its harbour and like Sydney it has its iconic bridges spanning the bay. We walked the Golden Gate and we rode Cable Cars. We explored the City and Fisherman's Wharf. However I don’t feel like our hearts were really quite there with us. We all just want to get home. 

All James talks about is what he will do in Australia and what he’ll do at “Gran and Pop’s”. In fact what he’ll do to Gran and Pop!  My parents house in Sydney has become his aim in life.  Emily copies her big brother, unsure of just who Gran and Pop are, but equally determined.

Our time here is making me look back over our journey and remember all the places we have been. I’m having trouble remembering what order it came in. Where was that town? What did we do there? Who did we meet and what did we do? Europe feels like an age ago, the start of the USA leg feels like it was years rather than 2 months.

Our photos tell part of the story, but our computer orders the folders containing the pictures alphabetically. While it might have been novel to travel the world using the alphabet as a guide it looks just a little haphazard. Austria would have been our starting point and Vietnam the end. Second to last would be the Vatican just after the USA... I can’t even begin to imagine the logistics of travelling like that [although it would be a great TV series!].

In fact I’m so confused about where we have been and what we have done I have a rather skewed view of where home is. For the last nine months the closest thing we have had to a home base has been the cottage at La Lande d’Airou. For months when I think of home I have thought of going back there. I have thought of feeding the chooks and watering the gardens and having my daily chats with Vera. I became very fond of her.

Above all of our travels, and above all of the cities and towns and magnificent scenery, the cottage at La Lande d’Airou remains my favourite place and my favourite time. It comes down to how we operated as a family as much as the place.

No real TV, not a lot of toys for the kids, no internet connection, but plenty to do at both the house and in the surrounding towns. It was the sort of time spent together that I suspect few families get to experience these days. I’m luckier than many men who only get to see their kids for an hour at the beginning and end of the day. I have had the pleasure of watching my children grow 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the last 9 months. I feel like I am one of the luckiest men alive.

So as we sit in the departure lounge at SFO, and we let the children go berserk hoping they’ll run out of energy and sleep on the plane, I’m have no intention of trying to slow them down. Those passengers who look so annoyed now will thank us on the plane when both kids are sound asleep. Those passengers have no idea what we have done or how well we know our children by now.

Who would have thought when we first came up with this idea that we would actually make it? Who would have thought it was a good idea for two people, who had never travelled overseas as adults, to drag their infant children around the world? Who would have thought that you could make up a trip like this as you go along? 12 months ago I don’t think we actually believed we could do it, although we were determined to try.

Now it has worked. Now it is over. They are calling us for our flight and finally I have to rein the children in.

Nine months, fourteen countries, three continents.


1. Merriam Webster: any of various traveling shows and local assemblies that flourished in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that provided popular education combined with entertainment in the form of lectures, concerts, and plays.

2. A kind of travelling tent-show which used to move across America featuring popular talks 

To say I was a little bit scared would be an understatement. I was scared of both the ice we were driving on and I was scared that I might wee my pants just a little tiny bit.

Driving north through Idaho on Interstate 15 the road was starting to ice up. Snow was piled high on each side of the lanes, but now it was creeping into the lanes.

My only consolation was that other drivers were continuing, and they were travelling faster than us. By the time we had gone 10 miles from the first hints of ice on the road surface, the entire northern lanes were under an inch of ice. There was nowhere to go but onwards.

Driving a four berth, 25 foot long motor-home which has neither snow tyres nor snow chains along an icy highway was something I just hadn’t counted on. Doing so in brilliant sunshine was even more unexpected.

If the weather and road conditions turned against us we had planned to stop and wait it out. But the interstates have few places to stop, and the rest areas that were along the road were under an even greater load of ice and snow than the highway.

I haven’t been that scared since I was a little boy, and I haven’t wet my pants since I was a little boy. [ except for that time in my 20’s which I would rather not discuss]

Also on my mind was that we were still 50 miles and a couple of thousand feet below the mountain pass we had to get through. That pass was 6500 feet above sea level and the road climbed slowly and steadily in front of us. As we blundered on at 35 miles an hour, other cars sped by on their snow tyres, still able to maintain a steady 50.

That drive seemed like an eternity. I was concentrating on the road and the grooves in the ice as hard as I have ever concentrated on anything. Plus I was concentrating very hard on keeping my bladder firmly shut at the same time. Eventually we reached the very top of the pass, 6500 feet above sea level, and the border between Idaho and Montana.

And then, as they say it the classics, it happened. 200 metres into Montana and the road was dry and clear. The snow was still piled high on the roadsides and was still blanketing the countryside around us. Montana sends out snow ploughs that actually clean the road surface. Suddenly we were cruising through the mountain range at 65 miles an hour with the wind at our backs and the sun on our faces. The difference between the way states maintain their roads was staggering.

That night we made it painlessly to Missoula, which itself was blanketed by foot deep snow. The next day we easily made it to our Spokane destination for a late lunch with the in-laws. The forecast snowfalls held off until half an hour after our arrival.

I arrived with my pride in place and most importantly with dry pants. I felt just a little like an Ice Road Trucker.

After just a couple of days in Spokane, Jo’s brother, Heath, had organised for us to go to a local shooting range. I’d told Heath that while in America I wanted to fire some guns to see what they were like. I haven’t fired a gun for over 20 years and even then it was only my cousins 22. I have never held a handgun.

Most readers will know the gun laws between Australia and the USA are quite different. In the USA gun ownership is seen as a constitutional right which seems to be extended to a right to own any sort of gun.

ice roadAt the gun range we took along Heath’s handgun and decided to hire a second pistol. Some months before I had whimsically suggested that I wanted to discharge the biggest gun I could lay my hands on. Heath, to his credit, had taken me entirely seriously and promptly said to the man behind the counter “We’ll take the 44 Magnum.... and a box of ammo”.

If you are a child of the 70’s or 80’s you will know that a 44 magnum “is the most powerful handgun in the world”. That this gun will “blow your head clean off”. And you may just find yourself asking if “you feel lucky”. With the Magnum in my hand I felt more scared than lucky. Once again I was I was spending an equal amount of time concentrating on both the gun and my bladder.

When I fired the 44, the explosion, because that’s what it is, was enormous. The Walther makes a serious bang when you fire it, but the Magnum is more like a hand cannon.

My arm was thrown upwards from the recoil. My ears were left ringing despite earplugs. My pants remained dry, thankfully. I think I may have smiled a bit before I fired the remaining 5 rounds. I can proudly say I hit the target every time, although it was hardly an accomplished display and it was quite a big target. Nevertheless, I felt just a little like Dirty Harry.

Our next high calibre excursion involved a farm paddock, a clay pigeon thrower, a 12 gauge shotgun, a nine millimetre pistol and a sniper rifle. Once again as we got ourselves set up in the paddock my thoughts turned to my over anxious bladder.

I hit nothing with the pistol, although I got close a couple of times. After a slow start I managed to hit quite a few of the clay’s with the shotgun, and with the sniper rifle I did not miss a shot. I shot 8 targets for 8 shots over an estimated 100 yards. By the time I had the rifle in my hands I had become so desensitised to the sound of the weapons that I found I had no need to think about what was going on with my water works.

I can say that I have had a great time going out shooting. I enjoyed almost every minute of it, and I’m pleased that I can now say I have done it. I would do it again tomorrow if the chance came up. Making guns go “bang” is fun, plain and simple But, I still have no desire to own a gun. And I still have no desire to go hunting. Cardboard targets, clay pigeons or tin cans is quite enough for me..

Welcome to America I tell myself. I am an Ice road trucker. I am Dirty Harry. Most importantly, I am “The Man with Dry Pants”

sheila resizeSheila has been quite sick again lately. So sick she may not see the end of our trip. For a while I thought she may have had a stroke. She was listing to the left quite badly and was really having trouble getting around corners. She has had the wobbles and is covered in grub and muck. She hasn’t been staying clean and just looks a mess.

But James and Emily adore Sheila. Almost every day they clamber over her, and sit and stand on her. Sometimes they dance on her. Eventually that sort of punishment had to take its toll.

This latest episode is her second illness. When her first breakdown happened it was very sudden. One minute we were strolling along the streets of Bayeux, then without warning her front foot collapsed under her and she slammed head first into the footpath. I was right behind her and there was nothing I could do. I tried to catch her and hold her up, but with James and Emily sitting on her she was just too heavy.

Regular readers of the blog may not realise that we have a fifth valued member of our family with us on this holiday. Sheila has been with us from the start and she’s carried us through thick and thin, but she is getting old and somewhat decrepit. Like many of us when we get old, things stop working properly and things break.

When her first break down occurred we carted her back to the car, shook our heads in dismay and thought that was the end. But with some encouragement and sympathetic words from Barbara and Allan at La Lande D’Airou, we realised that with the right treatment we just might get her get her back on her feet.

Allan became the lead advisor for Sheila’s recovery. He’s not a doctor, but an engineer, so his remedy was bound to be high tech. After studying her for a good while and considering her general health and condition, he decided that what she needed was to wear a brace. “That will get her going again” he told me.  His solution consisted of a heady cocktail of copper pipe, strong epoxy glue and lashings of fibreglass.

It worked spectacularly and within a couple of days Sheila was in rude good health and ready to take on the world again. Since her recovery she has traversed uneven footpaths of Rome, waltzed through the cobbled streets of Pompeii, conquered the narrow alleys of Carcassonne and overcame the crowds of Oxford Street and New York City.

Just when we thought we could relax, the inevitable happened. I don’t recall exactly where we were, but I remember the moment, horrible as it was. We were merrily wandering along a street somewhere when Sheila fell into a hole in the footpath. A paving stone was missing and Sheila, under my inadequate guidance had charged straight into it. The noise was sharp and clear above the traffic noises. “Crack!” was what we heard. Jo and I exchanged glances and both said simultaneously “that didn’t sound good!” We check her over but there wasn’t any clear injury and she was still able to move in a straight line.

In the following weeks Sheila didn’t complain about the obvious pain she must have been in, but the impact had weakened her significantly. I could tell something was wrong. I could tell something just wasn’t right. But it was more of a nagging suspicion than anything clearly obvious. She just wasn’t her old self anymore.

Sheila has been a constant source of inquiry as we’ve travelled. Many other parents have wondered where we found her, and have asked if they too can have a Sheila. She has been admired and ogled across Asia, the UK, Europe and America. When asked, we sadly have to tell them you can only get a  Sheila’s like ours in Australia. Even wearing her brace and bandages she has gathered many admiring glances. She has been our friend and our companion for this entire trip.

That’s why when she had her second break down the other day it hurt us so much. She is needed and wanted and life without her on this holiday just would not be the same.

When the latest episode occurred we were heading to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. It was just after lunch and I’d notice she was once again always trying to turn a corner... this time she wanted to go off to the right. Just like the last time, when the break finally came it happened quickly and without warning. One moment she was feeling a bit tired and starting to list, the next she was face down in the gutter.

I shouldn’t tell you this, because it will make Jo sound like a heartless cow, but Jo said to me in frustration, and I quote “Can’t we just DUMP her somewhere?”. “Heartless cow!” I thought quietly to myself. I refused to abandon our sick companion in the street and insisted that if we could just get her back to the Motor-home, I could follow Alan’s medication ritual and get her back on her feet again.

It meant I spent the rest of the day nursing her around New Orleans. People stared open mouthed at the sight of her. This time, not only had her front foot collapsed, but after the accident I tore what remained of it off so it was easier to carry. The main thing is that I managed to get her home.

And that’s where we are now. Sheila is convalescing in the storage at the back of the motor-home with her first application of glue and copper pipe. Tomorrow when she is feeling a bit better and her bones are a bit stiffer I’ll coat her with some fibreglass and let that set for a couple of days. Then maybe I’ll be able to coax her out again and see if she is up to the rest of our journey.

Who would have ever thought I’d get so attached to a stroller!

Postscript: Sheila has survived surgery and has since happily transported the children down Las Vegas Drive

There’s no nice way to say it. Tucumcari is a dump. Some years ago the town was part of the famous Route 66 and had a hustling and bustling railway yard. Now it has neither. img 2883 1The Government disposed of Route 66, and modern, reliable trains disposed of the railway yard.

With both the road and the railway gone the town gives the impression that it has been left to slowly rot and die. But, and it’s a big “but”, so far it’s been one of my favourite small towns on our journey across America and that’s because of the way the residents and businesses of Tucumcari welcome you.

We stayed at the KOA RV campgrounds on the edge of town and while it was showing its age a little, it was clean and everything worked. Plus the owners were simply the loveliest people to deal with. That is what makes the difference. If the owners were just business operators who took our money and didn’t care to chat with us, it would have been a very average place to stay.

Many years ago, during the Reagan era, I told a friend “I don’t like Americans, but I’ve never met an American I didn’t like!”. The last bit still holds true, while the first part of that statement was simply a product of the times and my youth. But my attitude towards America and its global influence has softened hugely on this trip. My understanding of what makes this country tick is so much greater then it was just a few short weeks ago. Not that I claim to understand it.

But while the generosity of spirit never fails to delight me, the ugly side of the States is still there. I’ve been listening a lot to the radio, but in the last few days I’ve almost given up and have resorted to the MP3 player.

All too often I can find only country music, or “Jesus” stations. Sometimes on a really desperate day I can only find “Country/Jesus” Station all rolled into one. While the country music stations play songs with some of the most inane lyrics I’ve ever heard, quite often to the same tune, the Jesus stations strike me as anything but Christian. I have never heard “hate radio” quite like it.

These angry announcers lately are obsessed with body searching at airports, particularly body searches of Muslim women. From that launching off point they start into an anti Muslim diatribe that is as extraordinary as it is relentless. Occasionally they pause and make an offhand remark that they are referring only to extremists within the religion, but the radio spruikers seem to fail to see that they in turn are sounding every bit as extreme and ill-informed as the people they are denouncing.

Thankfully while I seem to hear bits of this drivel everyday it’s just not backed up by the people on the street. America gets a lot of bad press. Some of it is warranted, a lot of it is not.

On this motor home part of our trip we have travelled from Washington DC, through Virginia along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Tennessee. There we visit Nashville and Memphis and then turn south to New Orleans. After three days of the Big Easy we head back north through Texas to the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

The Grand Canyon is everything people say about it and more. The only word that fits that place is Stupendous. It is simply the most staggering thing I have ever seen. It is vast and silent and serene, and you get the sense that if you get too close it will happily swallow you whole.

The day after the Grand Canyon we arrived in Las Vegas. If ever there are polar opposites then it’s these two places. While the Grand Canyon is a vast empty space, no space on the Las Vegas strip is let empty if at all possible. While the Grand Canyon had a handful of visitors at this time of year, Vegas was still going flat out despite this being its quiet time. The Canyon is silent. Vegas has no silence. The Canyon is full of wildlife.... so is Vegas... just not the same kind!

From Las Vegas we have been heading north again through the desserts of Nevada and Utah. Unlike Australian deserts they are not flat expanses. The highways follow the valleys between sharply rising mountain ranges. The mountains are the same colour as the desert floor, a sandy brown that gives the impression that nothing lives here.

Soon we’ll be getting into the cooler country of the north. Soon we’ll be driving the highways flanked by snow capped peaks and worrying that the water in the motor-home will freeze overnight. My greatest fear is that our black water, our toilet waste, will freeze solid one night and not defrost, and we’ll have to hand our motor-home back to the rental company containing “human remains”.

For now though it’s time to soak up the American landscape. It is a landscape familiar to anyone who ever watched The Lone Ranger or City Slickers. It’s all so familiar here, and all so foreign.

The man is across the street shouting. Not at anyone in particular, but he’s letting the world know about his rage, or at least that’s what I think it is. We are walking down 14thstreet in Columbia Heights, just up the road from the centre of Washington DC.

It’s our second week in the US and our base is a one bedroom apartment in an area which was ravaged by riots following the death of Martin Luther King. After millions of government dollars, which included a new train station, Columbia Heights is alive again, or so the historical street signs tell us.

Our first week in the US was spent on Staten Island, just across the Hudson River from one of the world’s great cities, New York. Each day we caught the Staten Island Ferry into Manhattan and spent our time exploring places that, thanks to American TV, are unnervingly familiar to us.

Wall Street looks as it should as does Times Square and the New York Taxi’s. The streets are frantic and the subway really does spew steam up into the street from manhole covers. You simply could not be in any other city in the world.

One the first sites we visited was where the World Trade Centre once stood. Today it is known simply as Ground Zero.. It’s now a busy construction site but the size and scale of the hole the terrorist attacks left in this city is gigantic. In coming days as we walk around the city it’s hard for me not to notice the hole the attacks left in the city’s skyline.

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Thanks to that attack the tallest building in New York is once again Empire State Building. I came here in 1976 when I was nine years old and the Bicentenary celebrations were just a few weeks away. The view from the top is just as spectacular as I remember from all those years ago.

After 5 days in New York we have arrived in Washington DC, another place of distant memories. Two of the strongest are of the Lincoln Memorial and the National Air and Space Museum. The Lincoln Memorial is at the Potomac River end of Potomac Park and looks back along the length of the National Mall to the Capital Building. The Statue of Abraham Lincoln it houses is gigantic, and his likeness  serenely stares along the Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument.

Our next day is spent in the National Air and Space Museum, and again it’s somewhere I’ve been before. In 1976, on that same holiday, I stood in the crowds with Mum and Dad and watched the then President, Gerald Ford, officially open what was then a new addition to the Smithsonian Institution.

The Museum has a stunning collection or famous aircraft. It includes the original Wright Flyer & the Spirit of St Louis. There’s a collection of space craft and rockets from both the American and Russian space programmes.

Once inside it takes 2 seconds to know that James has been swept into a world of his own. His three year old mind just doesn’t seem to cope with the sheer number of things on display. He races from one exhibit to the next, pausing only to shout out what something is before being distracted by something new. “Look at that rocket, Dad!!”, “look at that plane, Dad!!” he shouts across the hall before racing away again.

Somehow he knows what space suits are and the difference between a rocket and a plane. He even knows that the lunar module on display is neither a rocket nor a plane. My explanation leaves of what it actually is leaves him unimpressed. The concept of a man walking on the moon seems a bit too much.

The Smithsonian is one of the USA’s premier scientific education & research institutions. It has 19 museums, a Zoo, research organisations and a collection that lists 136 million items. It is the largest Museum organisation in the world. It is, quite simply, America at its cultural best.

Despite Washington being a fascinating place to visit and explore our time here is limited. We have come to America to share Christmas with Jo’s brother. Heath has been living here for around 2 years since marrying a local girl and to get to their house for Christmas we are embarking on the ultimate American Road trip. We are travelling from Washington DC to Washington State in the North West corner of this country. We are going to do this in, of all things, a Motor-Home.

After 5 months living in a caravan travelling Europe and the UK, some might argue that we are gluttons for punishment. People we have met have called us mad or brave. A few have kindly suggested we are “adventurous” to make such a long trip with two little children.

The best description came from someone a few weeks ago, who's name and face I can't remember. They said we were “crazy-brave”. Hopefully not quite as crazy as the man on 14th street in Columbia Heights still sharing his rage with the world.