The wildest ride of my life

Out for a lazy Friday lunch with friends on 27th January was abruptly cut short when I got a call saying my GP wanted to see me this afternoon following a scan that morning and I must make sure I come accompanied.  “Come accompanied”!!  That did not sound good.  That was just over a month ago but feels like a lifetime ago.  

I had not felt as fit or as strong as since we finished our first round the world trip.  I had been walking regularly, often twice a day, and had been volunteering with OzHarvest (a food rescue program) for the past few months, often collecting, and therefore lifting, over a ton of food in a day.  I was feeling super fit.  Yet something was happening in my stomach and had been for a while – stomach pains, some excruciating, bloating, heart burn.  Which I ignored as they came and went, putting it down to food, until I spent a night with chills, shivering, body shakes/rigours and 39.3 temperature.  I suspected Covid.  It wasn’t.  Two nights later it happened again.  I’d better see my GP – well, a friend told me to and I am glad I listened.

In the space of 3 weeks, from the time I first went to see a local GP for the first time, to my latest diagnosis, I went from being told the CT scans indicated I potentially had colon cancer to seeing the top surgeon of private hospital who explained that I most likely lymphoma and would need chemotherapy after surgery, to having the surgery including a laparotomy as he couldn’t find anything via the laparoscopy incisions, to being told by the surgeon that it turned out to be neither colon cancer nor lymphoma even though he could have put money on it, to seeing the surgeon again to discuss the next steps as he was determined to get to the bottom of my problems, to getting tests for pancreatic, thyroid or ovarian cancer and ultra sound on my ovaries and finally getting the current verdict:  it could be ovarian cancer but the blood markers are not very elevated so we are waiting another couple of weeks before redoing more detailed blood tests and having a colonoscopy and endoscopy and then in 2 months’ time redoing all the CT scans.  If the blood markers remain the same as the first ones, we’ll do nothing and wait for the CT scans in 2 months.  If they are elevated however, it will mean another op.  

Time to be wheeled to the operating theatre

Being wheeled from the operating theatre to my room

Those 3 weeks have been a hell of a rollercoaster.  Hearing “colon cancer” didn’t worry me – in fact, I turned to Anthony and said, “good, that’s a good one to have” knowing many people who have had it and recovered well.  Hearing lymphoma a few days later was a lot more worrying, especially seeing the CT scan and being shown what pointed to lymphoma – it looked like I was riddled with nasty lymph nodes.  Then there was incredible relief after the surgery that it wasn’t lymphoma. But when I was sent for tests for pancreatic cancer, my world was thrown completely upside down.  Not only was I still in a lot of pain from the open stomach surgery, I wondered whether I would soon be making that one way trip to Dignitas in Switzerland knowing the survival rate of pancreatic cancer was horrendous.  I decided I would fight to get over any of the other cancers, for us, but not pancreatic.  As soon as I found out it was not pancreatic, I suddenly felt I could breathe again.  It was the biggest relief ever.  I am much calmer now than I was 5 weeks ago.  

We are so incredibly lucky on so many levels. That we live where we do, that I found the most amazing local GP (my usual GP in the city was not available all week) and we can afford private health cover.  That the GP I saw acted immediately and referred me to the top surgeon at Greenslopes Private hospital.  That the surgeon’s receptionist called me 10’ after starting her day and receiving the referral to squeeze me in 3 days later to see the surgeon.  That this surgeon is not only a brilliant surgeon but a human human – no question was stupid or irrelevant, he took his time to re-explain what my shocked brain was trying to process.  And that we have caring family and friends that have provided us with wonderful support.  

I got so many flowers – these from my sister

I learned a lot about myself in this time, about how I deal with a personal crisis.  In short: not well.  I couldn’t talk to anybody.  Just the thought of the news I was given, what I would say and explain would make me cry.  I decided that I was not going to use “Doctor Google” until I had a confirmed diagnosis. It took all my effort to try and relax and breathe and not worry and not think.  Talking would require me to think about how I was feeling and it was not good.  I couldn’t face going through the whole explanations over and over so I drafted notes for Anthony to send. That way I said, ie wrote, it once only – that was hard enough.  The other reason was that I wanted Anthony to get support from my support network.  I have not wanted to hear the responses Anthony received after hearing a couple as they were too nice.  Many sent me messages understanding I wasn’t up to talking which was lovely.  But reading messages that I was strong and brave etc, while lovely, made me crumble.  I did not feel strong or brave at all.  I did not recognise myself in these statements.  And I felt I was a fraud because how could my friends think I was strong and brave when I did not feel that way at all?  I was a mess. But I did appreciate all the positive thoughts, prayers, healing vibes and virtual hugs we both got.  

Basically I was scared my life could be over soon and I was not ready.  I have not been blessed by having faith (but was grateful for all the prayers sent my way), have not come to terms with death (crazy I know) and still have so much I wanted to do.  And what about Anthony?!  How would he cope with whatever was coming next. That was too hard to think about.  So I’d retreat into my shell trying to process and block everything at the same time.  

In the old days, doctors would tell you to go home and get your affairs in order. That’s what I did in the few days before my surgery.  Finalised my company accounts and tidied my desk, got a new Will and Power of Attorney drawn up (couldn’t find the ones we did years and years ago), discussed life support and ashes again.  I was getting my affairs in order.

Since the operation, I have not done much!!  And Anthony has done absolutely everything, all the cooking, washing etc.  He has been amazing.  And always with his beaming smile, especially when he has created a new dish .  He has been making sure I don’t overdo things too.  I will not hide that the first few days after the surgery were extremely painful, hospital big knickers became my friend, but I am very happy to report that I have had near no pain in the past two days and am now walking 2kms twice a day (very slowly though).  Life is good.  

One of Anthony’s culinary creations

I cannot thank enough all those who communicated with me directly and patiently and lovingly, those who sent me messages saying they didn’t expect a response, and those who communicated with and called Anthony. It is moments like these that you realise or are reminded of what and who matters in your life.  And how important it is to make the most of life and your loved ones now.  There is only now. I am determined to make the most of the gift of now.

Tonight’s sunset in Manly

– Anne

27 October – End of the journey.

As the future through SpaceX fades into the haze behind us, we return to the present and are heading for Houston.  An early start will give us an opportunity to visit the city of Corpus Christi, specifically to see the USS Lexington (CV-16) which is a museum ship anchored there.

USS Lexington (CV-16) ready to set sail.

USS Lexington (CV-16) is an Essex class aircraft carrier laid down in July 1941 originally to be called USS Cabot. Following the scuttling of USS Lexington (CV-2) after the battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, workers at the dockyard, which built both ships, requested a name change.

The USS Lexington, (CV-16) reportedly nicknamed “The Blue Ghost” by Japanese propagandist “Tokyo Rose” perhaps because the Japanese claimed to have sunk her four times went on to serve in the US Navy in the Pacific from 1943 to 1945.  Moved to reserve in 1946 she was modernised with steam catapults and an angled flight deck in the 1950’s.  She did not see action in either the Korean or Vietnam wars but became a training carrier in the 1960’s, a role she continued to do until retired in the early 1990’s.

The flight deck seems huge when you are close up
Looking aft of the island on the USS Lexington (CV-16)

The ship is maintained by volunteers who are working to make more areas of the ship accessible to the public through guided tours that last for 3-4 hours and take one into the heart of the ship.  While it seems there is quite a crew, the workload must be enormous. I would not want to be on the painting detail.

As one stands on the deck of the USS Lexington surrounded by jets from the modern era it is hard to imagine that the ship had been in service for almost 50 years starting with propeller driven aircraft through to the supersonic jet age. For those fans of the original 1986 movie “Top Gun” the F14A, serial number 160694, was the aircraft “flown” by Maverick (Tom Cruise).  The F14 looks as if it is ready to be catapulted into action sitting on one of the forward catapult positions on the flight deck.

F14A used in movie “Top Gun” on the flight deck.

We are lucky that not only have friends from Fort Worth who moved to Houston since the last time we saw them, but other friends who retired to Costa Rica are in town.  We can catch up everyone in one location.  If only all our friends were so considerate rather than scatter themselves all over the globe, it would make travelling so much easier just one location to visit.  Just kidding!

Sadly COVID still had a way of affecting our plans. Pam our friend went down with COVID the day we arrived!  We still caught up with Bob a couple of times and enjoyed his generous hospitality.  Pam, we will see you next time we are heading that way.

The rest of our friends were COVID free and we had a wonderful couple of days catching up, relaxing with them and enjoying their hospitality. At one restaurant we experienced a truly American experience.  After dinner we went to the bar area to watch the end of the Houston Oilers / New York Yankees game for the American League Championship.  Houston went on the win that night, took the series and the World Series shortly afterwards. A great year for them.

Great to catch up with dear friends in Houston

Sadly, we had to return our bright red Dodge Challenger after two and a half weeks on the road. It has been fun and we have covered some 3,600 ml. / 5,800 km and turned a new car into a well used car! Onward to Los Angeles.

On the beach in Corpus Christi.

As we trudge through the Hertz car lot at LAX, I see we have been upgraded to President’s Circle.  A new experience.  A vast array of cars greets us.  We can choose anyone.  Oh I cannot help myself: there is a gleaming white Ford Mustang convertible.  No, the luggage does not fit as well as the Dodge Challenger but we get it all in: Road Trip part 2…..

Back in sports car mode. Last day on the beach in LA.

We are heading north to Buellton in Southern California, where a long time friend Charlie lives.  We have not seen him for many years so not only is it a chance to catch up but we will also be spending a couple of days wine tasting and dining out together.

An hour north of Buellton is Paso Robles, the centre of a wine region that has been producing since the Spanish introduced grapes to the region around 1800.  Today over 200 smaller wineries are known for their production of high quality wines.  With Charlie we have an expert on local wineries, but only time to sample a fraction of the fine offerings.  Over 2 days we visited wineries including Rocky Creek and Aaron Wines.  Because they are smaller wineries, producing a few thousand not tens of thousands of cases of wine a year we were able to converse with the owners/winemakers themselves including John Somogyi at Rocky Creek Cellars and Vailia From at Desparada.  We also got to be shown the process of removing mouldy grapes at Aaron Wines which is done by hand and via a centrifuge.  All in all a great couple of days 

Great to be hiking with Charlie again
Turley vines dating back to late 1800s
Removing grapes with mould by hand and machine at Aaron wines.

Halloween at the end of October, as many would know, is big in the USA.  While we have seen many ghoulishly decorated homes along the way including the one below, we have never been to a pumpkin farm.  So with Charlie it was a first.  I am not sure how one moves some of the larger pumpkins, by crane?

Now which pumpkin should I choose?
Our hotel receptionist’s halloween nails in Paso Robles
Halloween decorations at Manhattan Beach, CA
Creepy people around Manhattan Beach LA.

Leaving  Charlie and Paso Robles behind we head east in a loop back to Los Angles.  We pass Maricopa on Highway 166, following a scenic drive from Santa Maria, we come across nodding donkeys working steadily still, pumping oil. It is easy to forget, with the move to renewables being led by States such as California, that there is a history of oil production in Southern California. This can be traced back over 130 years with some of the first wells in the Los Angles basin close to the coast. I believe only one well in this region is still producing today. 

Nodding donkeys working outside Maricopa, CA

Vasquez Rocks, off State Route 14, has been the setting for movies and TV shows since the 1930’s. I recall the location used in a number of Star Trek episodes but scenes in over 50 movies as diverse as “Apache” (1954), “The Muppet Movie” (1979), “Planet of the Apes” (2001) have been filmed there as well as numerous TV shows.  While the location is stunning, it seems the main reason it was chosen was because it was close enough to Hollywood not to require overtime payments to movie staff for travelling beyond a certain distance.

Vasquez rocks, remember the movies you have seen them in?
We are heading home tomorrow.

In a past life, I used to return from San Francisco to Brisbane via the midnight night flight from Los Angeles International (LAX).  This gave me a six hour layover and rather than sit in the airline lounge, I used to take a taxi to Manhattan Beach south of the airport and find a friendly bar to enjoy the sunset over the Pacific Ocean with a cold beer in hand.

Finally after decades of midnight departures with 14 hours flying to arrive back in Brisbane at the break of dawn, we have a sensible departure time:  we have a morning departure.  Since we had arrived back in Los Angeles at lunchtime, I decided we should head to back Manhattan Beach.  After a leisurely lunch looking over the Pacific Ocean, we took a last stroll down to the Pier and found my old bar. Fond memories.

Tomorrow we will be looking at the Pacific Ocean from the other side!

We descend back into Brisbane three and a half months after we left.  So great to catch up with family and friends, old and new.  We have had many new experiences as well. Thanks to all who made the journey so memorable.

Anthony and Anne

The future? SpaceX Starbase and Starship

Brownsville is probably not the first item on most people’s travel itinerary when visiting Texas. Located on the banks of the Rio Grande river close to the Gulf of Mexico, it is over 1100 kms. / 700 mls. round trip from Houston, where we are planning to catch up with friends. We are drawn to Brownsville, or more accurately Boca Chica, the home of SpaceX’s Starbase, to see where the construction of the Super Heavy boosters and the Starships are being undertaken.

I find the SpaceX story fascinating, developing a reusable rocket system from scratch.  When I watch the boosters landing either on the ships or land, I am transported back to my childhood watching Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds or earlier Fireball XL5 series on black and white  television where model rockets appeared to land vertically just like we see today. Science fiction then, reality now. Until SpaceX developed the Falcon series, rocket boosters were just dumped into the ocean.  I wonder if there is an undersea mountain of discarded boosters down there.

As we headed south through Texas, we notice that in addition to the good old “nodding donkeys”used for oil extraction that have been there for decades, we start to see wind farms with the giant wind turbines rotating in unison, seemingly stretching to the horizon in some locations. The change to a renewable future is even here in oil rich Texas.

Wind Turbines now start to dot the landscape.

As we have travelled over the preceding years, much of what we have seen and experienced has been historically based. We read the plaques that give details of events that have shaped the past and present.  In a sense, we are looking backwards, not forward.  What we are about to see with the Starship is the future, it has not happened yet and the reason we are here.  We want to see and feel the future.

Texas State Highway 4 runs from Brownsville to the beach at Boca Chica on the Gulf of Mexico.  The state of the road, potholed in some places, gives no clue as to the importance of this route High voltage transmission lines the only indication that something of substance lies ahead. We notice on our left a US Border Patrol checkpoint for vehicles coming back from the coast due to the proximity of the US Mexican border along the Rio Grande river. We will have to negotiate the checkpoint on our return.

Our first glimpse of Space City is of two tall grey buildings rising out of the almost flat sandy landscape, as we drive closer a series of tall objects come into view, The Rocket Garden. 

Our first glimpse of SpaceX Starbase..
SpaceX Production facilities at Boca Chica.
We are here at the home of the Starship.

We both feel the excitement rising as we approach what is the SpaceX construction facility. We were not sure if it would be worth the long detour here, but as the buildings and rockets come more clearly into focus, we both know the trip was worthwhile.

I had expected that we would see more visitors here to see what SpaceX is doing, but only a couple of locals are present.  There is no large visitors car park full of curious visitors, souvenir stands or guided tours.  It is all so low key.  I guess I was expecting large gates, fences topped with razor wire and guards shepherding away those of us who get too close.  The opposite is true, low fences open gates and in some cases no gates just a small sign saying “ No trespassing Private Property”. We get an uninterrupted view of the Starships and booster.

Our first stop is the launch pad where to see the rocket combination on the launchpad. We are able to just park at the side of the road in the sand and walk back towards the rocket. What an amazing scene greets us.  Only a day or so before we arrive, SpaceX have assembled Super Heavy Booster No. 7 and Starship 24 on the launch pad. We hear that this is the combination that could be used for the first test launch.  Did they put it up just for our visit, or for passengers the convoy of Teslas that probably had Elon Musk inside one we saw entering the complex?  We will let you decide.

Ready to go SpaceX launch facilities and the crowds watching.
Hope they do not start up while I am standing here.
Starship 24 and Super Heavy Booster No. 7 Assembled on the launch pad.
The old and new. Original houses from Boca Chica village.

Driving back, we park outside the Rocket Garden, an aptly named area that has earlier designs three Starships including SN15, which was the first to successfully take off and land on the 5th of May 2021, plus a Super Heavy Booster to round off the display.  It interesting to compare each one and see external differences as the designs have evolved. 

No Gates, just a polite “Private Property” Anthony outside the SpaceX Rocket Garden.
Hang on we are off for a ride.
That close but not trespassing. Amazing.

We are back again the following morning to see everything again in the early morning light, better for photographs. Just beyond the launch site the road abruptly finishes at the beach on the Gulf of Mexico. Golden sands stretch north and south with the mouth of the Rio Grande just a short distance away.

My sentiments exactly, but more artistic than I could do.

In addition to purchasing a number of the original Boca Chica village residences for staff accommodation, a certain Airstream salesman must have got a great commission of the dozens and dozens of Airstream trailers/caravans that dot the landscape.

We are educated on how to identify the house that Elon Musk stays in when visiting, sorry no clues from us. No, it is not a Tesla parked outside, Teslas are common cars around here. Sadly Elon was not home to discuss our longer term travel plans. Yes we would move from motorcycles and cars to Starships given the opportunity, but there are many many more qualified than us ahead in the queue for such adventures. We will just have to dream.

The place is a hive of activity, even on the weekends.  We understand from a local that SpaceX operates multiple shifts a day, 7 days week in some areas.  You can see that this level of activity must move things along more quickly than the Monday to Friday 9-5 routine.  The challenge would be the handovers each day.  It must be much easier to come into work as we did and know that nothing has changed since you went home. 

One of the perhaps lesser known facts about SpaceX operations is the clever recycling they use.  There are two 9m high S-Band Tracking Antenna that were formally used by NASA for the Space Shuttle program and were considered scrap that have been purchased by SpaceX for their use with Starship and Falcon programs.  One of the original rocket engine test beds that flew a few meters off the ground is now a water tank.

9m. / 30 ft. high S-band tracking station antenna.

We leave the SpaceX Starbase complex for the second time and head for Houston.  We feel lucky and privileged to seen what we have. The detour here was definitely worth it.  Thank you SpaceX for making this all so open to see for those who come here. Please respect the boundaries and enjoy seeing the future before it becomes reality.

– Anthony

PS Anyone has Elon Musk’s email address so we can discuss our future travel plans?


Shopping in Texas

When in the USA we have always taken a little time for shopping. In the past, we have found both competitive pricing and variety giving us the best of both worlds. 

Being in Texas where everything is bigger, yes I know that Texas is just a small town in Queensland, I meant the other one, we should avail ourselves of the opportunity.

With Christmas approaching and having binged on numerous Netflix Christmas movies in the motels, perhaps now was the time to upgrade our festive decorations from minimalist to extravagant.  Lunch at the Cracker Barrel chain offered such an opportunity to do just that.  Surrounded by all the glitter I was ready to buy up big, but just could not decide between the “All White” or the “multi coloured look”. Oh well there is always next year.

Texas was where some years ago I introduced Anne to the pistol range.  We both shot 9mm and even though it was Anne’s first time, her aim was good with only the recoil of her Smith and Wesson MP9 affecting the grouping of the rounds vertically.  Anne likes to keep her eyes out for an all in one versatile handbag and I thought that these might just be the ones.

All I need now is that nice 9mm handgun.

Seems the colour choices and the lack of armament options back in Australia have killed another sales opportunity. Oh well.

The term “Premium Outlet Stores” has, in my mind, conjured up a slightly better class of discount store. What I had not realised is that there are Premium and “PREMIUM” outlet stores. We learnt that at the San Marcos Premium Outlets located between Austin and San Antonio.  Armani, Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo amongst others provide a chance to acquire luxury branded goods at atmospheric, not stratospheric prices, but still outside our price range. 

If only they had my size in that style.

Luckily, seems we cannot get past the dark suited gentlemen with earpieces at the doors, something about unfashionable customers – phew that saved a few dollars.

Gun detection dogs in shopping centres. Whatever next.

When parking in shopping centres we are always mindful of our personal security and that of the automobile which usually contains all our possessions, no guns here, for the trip. Most centres seem to have some form of security but this was purely Texas.

Mounted car park patrol Texas style.

Eric explained that being on horseback gave a commanding view of the vehicles from above roof hight and I am sure it is easier to lasso a varmint from a horse than a security golf buggy.  Great idea.

Well shopping in Texas was a bust. A couple of pairs of jeans for me and a wallet still full of dollar bills.  Not a bad shopping trip.

And for those who don’t know us that well, our home borders on the minimalist, our 43 year old Christmas tree is a mere 50cm/20 inches tall and Anne hates guns.

– Anthony