THE question is inevitable.
The clear blue sky is draped gently over the flat expanse of Dallas, a perfect reflection of the green astroturf frayed around the custom-built timber furniture of the beer garden. It could be Australian summer, apart from the razor wire and the next 19 sentence.
"So what do people in Australia think about what's going on over here?"
The beer garden is buried in Dallas' Deep Ellum, a sweet part of the city that changed its name from Deep Elm through colloquial mispronunciation. The beers are light, cold and inspired by the state of Texas, including its proximity to the Mexican border.
The asker is one of many. In this case, he's been happy to chat at one of the Texan city's many craft breweries. It's been small talk and pleasantries, but eventually almost everyone you meet in America finds a way to ask about President Trump without using his name.
I equivocate out of politeness. We don't see every move, or every moment, but from what we do see it's pretty clear that comedian John Mulaney's comparison to a horse loose in a hospital is fairly apt.
My companion nods. "He's an idiot," he declares matter-of-factly.
The drinking continues and the camaraderie sinks a little deeper, settling in a bit more.
Life and death
ATLANTA traffic chokes its broad highways, leaving six lanes crawling between huge canopied trees in the verdant, sweaty May South.
My guide, a Hunter expat who has made his way through the traffic for almost a decade, guides us through the network of broad sluices and off-ramps with aplomb.
The overpasses whip past, a couple draped in bedsheets. It is days after the state of Georgia introduced its abortion bill. Governor Brian Kemp signed into law a ban on pregnancy termination after a fetal heartbeat is detected. That moves the line from the 20th week of a pregnancy to the sixth week. The American Civil Liberties Union argues the law "would ban safe, legal abortion and criminalise the most intimate decision women and couples make".
Georgia's law is quickly outdone by Mississippi, where the same sixth-week law is brought in. A federal judge slaps a temporary block on that law, which would have from July 1 jailed doctors who performed the procedure for up to six months.
The laws, I am told, are part of a southern push to challenge America's legal status quo on abortion. "It's getting just like [The Handmaid's Tale]," one woman tells me.
The topic is confined largely to the screens in bar-room corners and restaurant ceilings, much like the other political elephant in our room. Another expat Aussie I meet at a bar mentions he'll cop the fine and forego the uninspiring choice of the federal election back home in Australia.
Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr's birthplace and the city supposedly "too busy to hate" during the Jim Crow era, is a gorgeous mess of old and new, natural and built. Its centre is ringed by a cycle path called the Belt Line, which is in turn orbited by restaurants and bars. It's just as busy as those blocked highways, with bikes and scooters swooping between navy silhouettes in the twilight. From a rooftop bar, it is picturesque and welcoming. From other vantages, though, perhaps less so.
The city-country divide, I am told, is strong. Atlanta is a blue city, but the rural counties are often considered Republican. Georgia as a whole has voted Republican in the past six presidential elections.
I tour Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the venue of the most recent Superbowl, and watch Jehovah's Witnesses from around the world set up for their international conference. We are allowed onto a small portion of the pitch so as not to interrupt them.
The sticky days stretch on, and on the last a storm threatens. It never breaks.
THOSE clear Texas skies from the beginning of the trip fill up quickly over the next few days as a storm cell blocks flights. A group I'm meeting are diverted from Dallas to Houston due to a flooded runway, and my flight from Atlanta is forced to find a way through a system that reportedly spans much of the continent.
"Just so you know, tornado sirens just went off in Tulsa," my cheery seat mate informs me before he provides an impromptu ranking Oklahoma's best casinos.
I don't end up seeing any of them, instead bouncing between dozens of breweries pouring exotic sour beers, milkshake IPAs and hazy ales.
Tulsa is a relic of the 20th century oil boom that ultimately slid down into Texas. Its centre, spanning the Arkansas River, is quiet and calm. It stays so even amid flash flooding that drowns gutters, World War II air raid sirens hailing a tornado touching down at the airport. That's a 20-minute drive away.
Even before the alert the city centre's streets are quiet. Besides the Hop Jam the day before, which transforms its centre into 100 brewer stalls and far more revellers, Tulsa's heart has a Hunter Street vibe.
Its dozens of breweries stay shuttered today. The weather warning has many deciding Monday might not be worth the risk to patrons or staff. Nobody in Tulsa concedes that tornadoes are scary.
Earlier in the day, one born-and-raised local compares it to bushfires in Australia.
Another tells us a room in a brick building clear of windows is safe enough for anybody. "This place'll never blow down," he says as he pours another thick, creamy pint.
A third assurance is that downtown Tulsa is safe "because there's a river". Inconvenience seems the main problem, but the streets stay lonely all day.
The first warning of the tornado alert is every smartphone in a busy, dim cocktail bar moaning at the same time. It's an emergency warning of tornado conditions, and means you should take shelter.
The Australians in town for the previous day's music and beer festival rush to the door, hangovers arriving seconds later. Most are filming every droning whine echoing through the city's empty CBD. One of the bartenders joins them, just a flicker of concern breaking through the tough-guy apathy.
We never see a tornado in the end, just thick black clouds swirling in fast-moving winds over flat plains and anachronistic Art Deco skyscrapers. Ballrooms and other evacuation points, including stairwells, fill and empty like anxious lungs as the alerts sound over empty streets.
Even so, the threat of what could be and what could have been lingers in the back of our heads. The week's persistent rain elicits no complaints.
The Morrison government is re-elected in Australia in a surprise result the returned Prime Minister himself dubs a "miracle".
We travel on, through Tennessee's barbecue platters and country singers. The heat intensifies, the Memphis delta air sticky and hot and filled with smoke, but politics never comes up again.
Matt Carr is deputy editor of the Newcastle Herald.