A Treasure Cruise – Florida’s A1A

If you read my last blog entry, Easy, Breezy, Key-Z, you can understand my hesitancy to leave my friends and their fabulous home and hospitality in Islamorada.  In fact, I’ve loved many of your comments and responses requesting their address and wanting to know if they take renters!  (Not just yet!)

It’s easy to covet a little here – there’s much to envy!   The Key-z life is a chillaxed one.  Slow-pace, laid-back, no-hurry.  It’s not hard to get drawn into the easy rhythms of eat, sun, sleep, repeat.  Atlantic Ocean sunrise across the street, Gulf sunset in the “back yard”, food, fun, and most importantly friends, within.  Thoughts of the cutthroat pace of Northern Virginia seem downright sinful in comparison.

But while I was as content as a manatee lounging in a Florida canal, I realized that the explorer/discoverer in me was ready to move on.

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The sweet Florida manatee

Consoled with the thought that this wouldn’t be my last visit to Islamorada, I headed out.   I had missed life on the road!

I had known my plan for this first leg north from the moment I decided to take this trip.  In fact, it probably had something to do with deciding to come down here at all.  Trading in the mountainous route that brought me all the way from home to Georgia and into the endless orange groves and sugar cane fields of Florida, I was opting for sand and surf as my view of choice for the next few days.  (Fun fact for the day:  Did you know sugar cane grows in Florida?  I did not. As you approach the Everglades, the roads become lined with tall grass a little reminiscent of bamboo.  The stalks, which grow up to 20 feet high, cover 400,000 acres of southern Florida west of West Palm Beach.  Driving past it for miles, I was dying to know what it was.  I’m obsessive that way.  Now we all learned something new!)

My route:  Florida State Road A1A for as long as it would take to reach its northernmost end at Fernandina Beach, near the Georgia border.  The road originates at mile marker 1 in Key West, so I wasn’t truly driving it in its entirety.  1A66B750-8841-41F2-96E2-3D52C8EB97F7I began at approximately marker 72, which left me with 256 Florida seaside miles to go.  How long can that possibly take, you ask?  Well, as much of the road is 35 MPH and serves as the main drag through countless seaside towns, it’s not quick.  Nor did I have any desire for it to be.

My imaginings of this drive conjured up dreams of a top-down, hair-flying, music-blaring summertime road trip. The reality was close, though more sun-roof open than top-down.   For the first time on my trip, I didn’t have any sleeping plans.  I had no idea how long it would take or how far I would go on any given day.  In the end, I spent two nights and the better part of three days working my way up the A1A.  Time to think, to stop wherever and whenever the mood struck me, to just be.  A free-spirited, clock-free existence.  I highly recommend it.

To provide some geographic context – once you head back to the mainland from the Keys, you must deal with Miami.  It is the first and last significant-sized city I would encounter as I hugged the coast northward. I headed east to Miami Beach, and just kept moving.  For the first hour or so, there was little to see beyond the staggering wealth and high-rises that flanked both sides of the road, preventing any possible ocean views, though I always knew it was just beyond the trappings of the rich and famous.

889AC7FC-C6D4-4B2F-9BA5-299BA2574FF6Once through the elegant clutter of it all, I began to relax and enjoy the slow-pace and the dwindling population of smaller and smaller towns.  It was a Friday night and the setting sun tried unsuccessfully to hide behind a soaring cumulonimbus cloud.  It appeared lit from within, like a trapped lightning bug peeking through a child’s chubby fingers. The result was a magical golden light cast on everyone and everything in its path.   Tan and hungry vacationers crossed the street from beachside to rows of restaurants, trading in the sea to search for their evening meal.  One by one, I passed similar scenes through little hamlets like Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Pompano Beach, Hillsboro Beach, Deerfield Beach.  When the sun stopped, so did I.  I hadn’t considered it before but quickly realized that traveling in the dark held no magic for me.  I wanted to see every single piece of it.

After another successful AirBnB experience (I don’t even know where it was, exactly!) I headed out early.  I discovered that traveling the coastal road meant that often the Intracoastal Waterway was directly on my left, divided from the Atlantic by not much more than the road on which I was driving, plus a little sand and a single row of homes.   Water, water everywhere.  West Palm, Palm, Jupiter . . . I drove through them all, with the morning sun shimmering on the Atlantic just outside the passenger-side wide-open window.  Green-blue water turns deep blue and then turquoise before continuing on to greens again, and my head constantly on a swivel between the road and the water.

30566279-05DF-4DD0-8C95-98B2AF10926EWhat is the irresistible draw to the ocean?  I drove alongside it, my faithful sidekick, for three days before having to leave it behind in favor of marshland and sea grasses at the edges of Georgia.  I never tired of it.  Unlike my trip down, I did not have set stops to explore places along the route.  The route was the adventure in this case.  When I needed to stretch my legs, I took Christmas morning-like pleasure in turning on my right signal and parking in one of hundreds of beach-side parking areas along the road.  In 30 seconds, flip-flops off and toes in the sand.  Not a bad way to spend the day.

Hutchinson Island was one such place, and I was amazed to find the beach in bloom.  Long meandering vines of beach morning glory trailed down towards the surf, with bright purple flowers marking the way.

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Beach morning glories at Hutchinson Beach

So many possible places to park for a day at the beach resulted in often unpopulated stretches of sand.  I found this makes for better daydreaming.  Fifteen minutes at this beach, twenty at another one down the road – a good drive.

One of my favorite finds along the way was eclectic road-side hot dog and ice cream stands.  My pick for one afternoon was Moo’s Ice Cream in Indiatlanic, about an hour south of Cape Canaveral.  Moo’s boasted both ice cream and hot dogs, and I had to agree with their signage, as it was indeed, “udderly delicious”.

These slow, sweet miles passing through small coastal towns fooled me into forgetting that Daytona Beach was not far into my future.  Upon reaching its outskirts I clearly recognized I was not in Kansas anymore.  Stuck in Saturday afternoon traffic edging slowly north, however, a completely unexpected shock of memory caused me to sit up and take closer notice of my surroundings.   A strong sense of “I’ve been here in this exact place before” hit me.  From the time I was a little kid, I’ve had this happen to me.  Driving somewhere I haven’t been in years, I’ll often have a very tangible sense of being near something specific I’ve experienced before.  Most times the feeling is spot-on, and it can be creepy.  I had it now, and I suddently knew why.

I have to first say that Daytona Beach is not my kind of place.  Full of hotels and t-shirt shops, vendors of all kinds line the street, old semi run-down hotels, putt-putt, etc.  All the trappings of Spring Breaks gone by.  And crawling with tourists.  To be fair, I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy its lovelier qualities as well, but on this hot summer day, it’s the seedier side that seems to be outshining the rest.  I realize that this is exactly why I know I’m very near a very average hotel, (if it still exists), called “The Mayan Inn”.

This fine establishment was home to the Jersey Shore High School class of 1984 in the spring of that same year.  (Requisite note to those unfamiliar with this school.  It is not in New Jersey, nor anywhere close to it.  It is, in fact, in the middle of nowhere in the Allegheny Mountains of central Pennsylvania.  There is a semi-logical and somewhat humorous reason for this.  Click the link for more.)

In any case, for some reason my friends and I find inexplicable some 30+ years later, our school allowed us to take a senior class trip to Daytona Beach.  Yes, sponsored by the school.  Four buses (long live Bus #2!) of 17 and 18 year-olds headed to Florida, many of us our first time out of the state, to be basically set free to enjoy ourselves in Daytona Beach for a few days prior to heading to Disneyworld and the then-newish Epcot Center.  Yes, there are stories.  Many.  They will not be retold here, though if you care to know them, I can provide a short list of storytellers still living in the Jersey Shore zip code who can recount a great deal of the experience, still causing the rest of us to cry ugly laughing tears.  Good times.

In any case, I just knew the Mayan Inn was close by.  A quick look at my GPS confirmed it was up ahead, less than a quarter-mile away.  The experience seemed a little like Lucy and her siblings must have felt when they had a chance to go through the wardrobe for a return trip.  (Please do not think I am comparing Narnia and Daytona.  I am NOT!)  B1B1ED78-15BB-4F3B-9429-02C732F9D951And then right in front of me, the Mayan Inn stood in all it’s 1980s gold and orange glory, lording over the A1A and beach beyond.  The marquis seemed exactly the same as the one in our 1984 photos.  I stopped long enough to snap a few pics and send them to a friend from home.  No words needed.  She knew exactly where I was when she saw it.

And maybe that’s a piece of what I learned on these first two days on the A1A.  That I was unwittingly reaching back in time to grab hold of something familiar.  The most literal example were the memories of a few crazy days spent on Daytona Beach (days that would live in infamy!), but the entire coastal road touched something something deeper and almost lost.  A slower pace, a simpler life, a walk in the sand, family vacations, ice cream, hot dogs, a sweet sunset.  The entire experience conjured up feelings of a former existence, and not necessarily mine alone.  I felt it was a treasure I wanted to claim as my own.  I didn’t want to lose it.  Things to consider for sure, but for now,  windows down, shades on, music up – the cruising continues!

Easy, Breezy, Key-Z – the Good Life!

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Welcome to Islamorada!

A vacation contemplation:  Despite my great excitement to see my friends in the Keys, I admit to being slightly hesitant to actually arrive.  My trip, now in its sixth day, had developed a rhythm all its own.  Wake, explore, drive, stop and explore, drive some more, write, sleep, repeat.  I was concerned that parking somewhere for 5 days would somehow spoil the integrity of it, or at least break the spell of the calm, contentment that I had discovered.  In the end I had a not-shocking reality:  staying with friends for 5 days in their home on the beach is, in fact, different than staying 5 different nights in 5 different states, sleeping in my car, a cabin, airbnb’s, and hotel-ish types of places. Another reality:  it was OKAY and I got over it.  Now, to the vacation part of my vacation . . .

Most people I know in Virginia would probably define themselves as “beach people”.  Where I live, that generally means Ocean City, Maryland or the Outer Banks in North Carolina, though there are plenty of other less-populated islands and towns that stretch south through not just Maryland and Virginia, but North and South Carolina as well as Florida.  I’ve visited many of them, and they all have their own charm and draw.  The boardwalks of Ocean City, Virginia Beach and Myrtle stand in bright and busy contrast to the lazy low-key islands and inlets that dot the coastal Carolinas and parts of Georgia and Florida.  The further south you go, and the further away from the edges, in my experience, the lower the blood pressure of the average inhabitant and vacationer.  (Note: Daytona and Lauderdale do not support this argument, so I’m just leaving them out of the conversation!)

The Keys, however, seem to be a different animal entirely.  I’ve been only once before, so my experience is limited at best.  And to be completely up front, I’ve never been all the way to Key West, though I’ve read a good amount, in part thanks to crotchety Hemingway.  My friends live in Islamorada, which is an area, though maybe not exactly a Key.  Their exact Key, is Lower Matukumbe, which is at the tail end of the area of Islamorada, near mile marker 72.  All very confusing.  In fact, when I asked two residents to break it down for me, neither seemed entirely sure how to explain the actual name of their little slice of land.  As I look out the window at the Gulf, I’m content to just call it “heaven”.  It would be hard to argue with that assessment.

If you’ve never been, the Florida Keys are a sliver of land extending south and west off the coast near Miami.  They begin roughly around mile marker 106 and Key Largo, and curve back around to Key West, perched out at its furthest point at mile marker 1.  Flanked by the Atlantic to the south and east, and the Florida Bay/Gulf of Mexico to the north and west, the A1 highway is the only way through.  580FC5CA-5885-45C6-B2BD-0388D7D44094Many of the Keys are connected by bridges, the clear warming waters of the Gulf mingling with the Atlantic beneath their arches.  I find it both mesmerizing and a little creepy to know that when you’re out there, the full width of the land (if there’s any at all) can be as narrow as the road itself.  Consider that when a hurricane is threatening.  There’s only one way out for 100 miles, and hunkering down means that you are choosing to stay where can hit a golf ball from the roof of a house into the Atlantic or the Gulf, depending on which way you face.  Not that comforting when the winds are howling and the storm surge is coming at you.

With all that in mind, it’s perfectly logical that the average habitant is fun, water-loving, super laid-back and just a little nuts.  I found out that if you’re a native, you are considered a Conch, and there are quite a lot of them.  My friends, though frequent visitors for the past 25 years and one-time Florida residents, have only been living full-time in the Keys for about 3 years, so can be humorously be referred to as “freshwater Conchs”.  By the way, they do fit the descriptors above, or at least my friend Rene does.  Carmen, her wonderful and very Italian husband, cannot be considered “laid-back” simply due to Italian blood.  What he lacks that area, however, he makes up for in the fun-loving and a little nuts areas.

About 3 ½ years ago, they decided to rent in Islamorada for the winter and get a sense of what it might be like to live there full-time.  Within a month, they had bought a beautiful Gulf-side waterfront property, and Carmen eagerly set about the business of overhauling the original house in favor of his own dream of a design.  Rene, ever the supportive wife, just got out of the way.  In fact, she’s so amazing that for the next 2 years, she happily (mostly) and without grumbling, lived in their small RV, (in the driveway of the new home!) with four tiny dogs and an obsessed husband, still doing the books for their former business, with both kids away in college in North Carolina.  While we all teased and made fun, the end result is no joke.  Well, there is one very good “dirty” joke/true story about Rene and the septic line from the RV.  Hilarious, but for another time.  In fact, Rene may still say it’s “too soon”.

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Now complete(ish), their home is a dream, and designed for fun.  Color is a given in the Keys, and they embraced that to the fullest.  Their backyard (i.e. the Gulf of Mexico) shimmers with green and blues, and Carmen brought all those colors to life both inside the house and out.  A beautiful infinity pool, tiled in iridescent blue/silver squares, conjures up images of mermaids and blue marlins.  It’s breathtaking and just the beginning.5ACF3CC7-49B6-46A2-B3F8-8A5698286C09

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Carmen has a bit of a love affair with wood from Bali.  Every room in the house, and out, boasts of intricately carved pieces from beds to benches, and a dining room table that is truly a tree. DSC_0024 The house was actually built around the table (it’s one floor up) and their lava-rock bathtub (two floors-up), which are permanent fixtures of the house and both far too heavy to be carried, and thus were air-lifted and placed in their current and forever locations.
486D819E-CDC6-4C70-AC96-5E6F18406A78Waterfront rooms boast floor-to-ceiling windows, making you feel that you’re perched on the edge of the bay, just a step away from splashing in with the dolphins and pelicans beneath.  The details of the whole interior – part nautical museum, part dream home, are too numerous to recount.  Suffice it to say that the possessed Italian restaurant-owner turned designer, truly outdid himself.

But what’s most important to know about these fine friends is not the wow-factor of their amazing home, but their kindness, generosity and friendship.  I was welcomed like family.   Wait, one more house note – my room was to die for!  (See photos,

2CABC971-4B8E-4E97-92C7-8C1C014BF97Fthough there is not a picture of my self-heating toilet seat with built-in fan.)

For the next 5 days, I ate like a queen (he’s a chef, too!), slept like a baby, laid by the pool, drank wine and talked for hours with my sweet friend. D60DFE90-0F25-4829-B335-4595BDA4AC04 Our daughters have grown up together, best buddies, playing soccer all over the country.  Rene and I (and a few other now forever friends) traversed what seemed like all of America with our girls, enjoying every moment, unknowingly building bonds that won’t be broken.  We are all cast to the winds, now, with some of the girls now graduated and the rest entering their final year of college.   There was much to catch up on, and we did our best.

My hosts made sure that I experienced the best of Islamorada during my short stay.  By way of baptism, my first evening I was treated to fantastic steak and seafood at the bar at Ziggie and Mad Dogs, whose bartender had a laugh we won’t soon forget. (Think horror movie.)  EC357578-3060-4342-B590-FB765E586783 For the most part,  we steered clear of the vacation hotspots, and instead hung out at the OV, or the Ocean View, a very “Key-Z” joint for great music.  The night I was there, one of the former Lynard Skynard guitarists played and sang, along with half-a-dozen other incredible local artists. I admit I couldn’t resist visiting the touristy Robbie’s Hungry Tarpon, a renowned favorite. F5405D09-D2F0-4679-8873-915308464B42 Where else can you get an amazing “Trailer Trash” Bloody Mary, complete with beef jerky stick for a straw, shrimp, pickles, bacon, and more.  Breakfast in a glass!

Best of all, halfway through my stay, we welcomed home their sweet daughter (one of my favorite people on the planet) and son, back for a few days for her surprise birthday celebration with college friends.

But mostly, we just relaxed, taking in the sunshine and clouds, talking easily like old friends do, and planning a return trip down with the rest of the family in tow.  Each day I was gradually refueling for my return north.  I had been hesitant to finally arrive at this destination, and now I am contemplating devising ways to stay.  In the end, though, the desire for continued adventure wins, and I am consoled in knowing that my coastal route north will keep me close to the water with plenty of ocean breezes and salt-air.

Calm in the Storm

Destination day dawned clear and bright.  I awoke with a mix of glad anticipation to finally arrive in the Keys and a sense of loss that my journey south was coming to a close.  If you’re tempted to feel sorry for me, don’t.  I have five days in Islamorada to look forward to, and another five to drive back to Virginia.  Yet there remains an inescapable sense of losing something I can never quite get back.  These last days had been so full.  Full of wonder, joy, discovery, miles traveled, new thoughts and ideas, peace.  I was a little bit afraid to stop and risk breaking the spell.

But day dreams of wide aquamarine waters of the Gulf and the Atlantic overruled my doubt.  And truth be told, I admit to beginning to feel a little trapped by central Florida.  I think it was knowing that I was flanked by far-off balmy beaches running up and down to both my right and left, though the only things in sight were massive black thunderclouds dead ahead, and a 360-degree panorama of citrus trees.

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A small glimpse of the orange groves in Central Florida.

In fact, in those next few hours, I drove by every single grove of orange and grapefruit trees in all of Florida.  Orchards themselves were nothing new to me.  I grew up in a land of sweet and sour cherries, peach, pear, every variety of apple imaginable.  The mountainsides above our valley were dotted with fruit farms owned by neighbors and friends, and we all picked our share as teenagers.  But these endless green groves rushed silently past my windows for miles as I headed further and further into the darkness of the impending storm.  Dozens and dozens and even a hundred miles.  Tropicana, Florida’s Natural, Minute Maid.  This was big business.

Somehow in the midst of now pelting rain and wind, I was lulled into a reverie as my mind wandered back over the miles.  The word contentment kept replaying over and over.  There was a peace that had come with this journey, and it was a somewhat unexpected revelation.  And oddly there was another word that kept creeping in, but more like a memory:   fear.

EE5C9877-8E62-44D0-A908-F9B1866B70BFContentment vs. Fear.   Not typical antonyms, but yet they are.  Enemies, in a way.  Thinking on this, I recognized that to be content requires the absence of fear.  I consider that you cannot have both at once.  This moment in the storm was an example of exactly that.  I couldn’t see 5 feet in front of me, yet there was no fear.  The road was predictably and comfortingly straight for 50 more miles at least; I knew where I was going even though I’d never traveled this way before.   The storm would not dissuade me from my “okay-ness”.  No room for fear here.

We all have songs that speak to us in different seasons of our lives.  Currently, Zach Williams’ song, Fear, He is a Liar won’t leave my brain.  Its truths are tangible.  From the time I was a little girl, FEAR was my demon. Of course everyone is scared sometimes.  We know it’s healthy and normal.  It keeps us from burning our fingers on a hot stove or stepping too close to the edge of a cliff.  But a healthy fear of something is different than a controlling one.  And while as a child I had no reason to be controlled by fear, I was always afraid something bad would happen.

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of love, and of power, and of strong mind.”  (2 Tim 1:7)  Life-changing words for me.  God did not give us fear.  Fear didn’t come from Him.  This verse is rich for me.  And now this song.  The refrain is a powerful adaptation of that verse in a way.

“Fear, he is a liar

He will take your breath

Stop you in your steps

Fear he is a liar

He will rob your rest

Steal your happiness

Cast your fear in the fire

‘Cause fear he is a liar”

A liar.  Fear takes, stops, robs, steals.  Gratefully, I realized these days on the road had allowed me to trade in the adult version of all that for it’s sweet counterpart – contentment.

More verses in my head: “Be content with what you have, for He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you”. (Hebrews 13:5)   And “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation . . . I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  (Phil. 4:11,13)

Peace, rest, deep breaths, contentment.  Slowing down, appreciating the small stuff, the simple things, being certain of what I cannot see.   Yes, this is where I was headed all along.  And here I found it, in the eye of a black cloud, water gushing down the road in a nameless, faceless place.  It was perfect.  To be honest I quickly realized I was much like Dorothy and her friends (minus the tornado part, thankfully!), on the hunt for something they imagined they were doomed to live without only to find they had it all along.  Contentment had never left me.  It was always there, but I had traded it in for fear, and noise.  Now the lure and the peace of the road restored it to me.

The rains let up (though they would come and go several more rounds before I arrived), sunshine shimmered through the clouds and I opened the sun roof to let the rays soak in and take in deep, fresh breaths of clean air (I’d be lying if I said “orange-scented air”, but that would have been cool!).

I happily drove on, reminiscing on all the little things that paved the path these last five days.  Here are a few random discoveries from my collection of experiences thus far:

  • Old hotels are the best hotels.
  • Small-town people are almost always friendly.
  • There isn’t a town or village in the south without a clapboard Baptist church and a Dollar Store.  (Is there a connection between the two?  A question for another time.)
  • There are an insane number of small never-heard-of-them-before college campuses between Virginia and Florida.
  • Signs that say “Bear Country” are actual serious.  Not just a fun photo op.
  • Bees are beautiful.
  • It’s possible to build a fire out of totally wet wood if you’re very patient (+ firestarterJ).
  • I love fog.
  • Theoretically, you can easily run out of gas on either Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway if you’re not careful.
  • Waking up on a mattress in the back of your car on the top of a mountain is exciting.
  • RV parks are almost as common as Walmarts in these parts.
  • Just as interesting is that you can spend the night in your RV in a Walmart parking lot and they’re cool with it.
  • Greenville, SC is a “do-over” (= two thumbs up).
  • It’s possible to buy “New York Fried Chicken” at a middle-of-nowhere gas station in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
  • You’re never too far from a Starbucks if you really need it.

To sum up, I realize I cleared the fog and relearned some big important stuff that’s really pretty simple.  I’ve also learned lots of seemingly trivial things have made the trip that much more memorable.

My last important lesson of the day was a geographic one, however.  If you drive far enough into the heart (or bowels, I’m not sure which seemed more accurate) of Florida, you eventually have to head east to the Ocean or west to the Gulf.  Continuing southward would simply make me part of the food chain in the Everglades.  It was a little like playing chicken – you eventually gotta choose a side or risk dismemberment.  So, I stared down the swamp until the road gave me no choice, then promptly veered left and skirted Lake Okeechobee on my way to the coast, Miami and beyond.

If I stepped on it (and route 95 wasn’t a parking lot), I’d be hanging loose in the Keys by mid-afternoon.  These next five days will be just fine after all.

 

Florida Surprises

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Old Florida

As I write, I’m discovering some of the less sensational parts of my journey have turned out to be much more compelling and interesting once I stopped long enough to reflect and write about them.  Experiencing these weeks through the windshield and on foot has provided an overload of moments to recount and remember.  Writing about them is allowing me to put them in a memory box of sorts, with the blessing of sharing it with you!

This occurs to me today because it was my intention to recount two traveling-through-Florida days in one writing.  At one point I thought of skipping both entirely because I feared they lacked interest from a reader’s perspective.  And now here I am, telling you I can’t fit my tales into one post!

So, one day at a time.  That’s the life I’m living right now, and without getting too preachy at you all, it truly is the only way I can do it.  “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”  Matthew 6:34. And another sage piece of advice, ala Robin Williams (and ancient others before him, I realize), “Carpe diem”!

While the first several days were exciting and roughly mapped out to enjoy certain towns and cities, the rest was just loosely organized around the goal of getting through 650 miles of southern Georgia and all of never-ending Florida.  I was thinking fondly of my destination at this point. Islamorada Key, here I come!  Well, except for the no-highway part.  I was not exactly moving at break-neck speed.

And then, Florida surprised me.  Writing that sentence actually surprises me.  Seems like an oxymoron.  What could possibly be surprising about Florida?  I don’t even really like Florida.  In word association, I would quickly shout out, “old people” or “Disney” or “beach”.   Though I’d been in the state dozens of times, it was rarely a place we chose to go on its own merits.  Soccer tournaments, trips to Magic Kingdom, visiting a relative, a Superbowl.  Mostly fun, but Florida itself did nothing to capture my imagination.  On this trip I wanted to see if by any chance there was a heart to this state, not just a painted-on smile that felt like The Truman Show or Pleasantville. Is there anything that’s not a cardboard cutout of every other never-ending condo village, housing development or shopping center?  Show yourself, I felt like saying.  Give me something worth remembering!

I crossed the border into the Sunshine State on some forgotten byway north of Jasper.  No traffic, no houses, no nothing.  Not a compelling start, but at least it wasn’t cookie-cutter. DSC_0007 Rail tracks ran parallel to my left, and before long I caught up and passed a freight train, its endless tanker cars chugging slowly southward.  I’ve always loved trains.  They fall into that romantic category of the road less traveled, mostly because they’re the tracks you don’t and often can’t, travel.  Where do they all go?  I just want to get on and find out.  They smack of adventure to me. I feel a goofy kinship with this one as we both ramble towards the depths of this huge peninsula.

Live oaks line the mysterious turnoffs to the east and west – mostly just lanes that likely lead to homes and maybe an old plantation or two, but still . . . I wonder.  Down the road I ease into the little town of White Springs, and the Adams Country Store, est. 1865, welcomes all who enter.  One day long ago, it was something.  It still stands tall and proud, but faded in every way, almost white-washed.  It’s red tin-roofed overhang and green shutters add gentle well-worn color.  Rocking chairs sit silently on the porch, and surely they have their own stories to tell.  An “Antiques” sign flutters to its side.  The old place still has purpose.

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The Adams Country Store in White Springs.

I skirt along small lakes and other tiny towns until I accidentally end up smack in the middle of Gainesville and the University of Florida. Not feeling it, I press on.   Just a little further south, however, is my curious destination of the day.  It’s an itty bitty town just off route 441 south, population about 600. Named after a Seminole Indian chief in the early 1800s, its roots go back as far as 1539, when the explorer De Soto recorded an Timucuan Indian village there.  Name:  Micanopy.  Pronunciation?  No idea.  The answer to this question heads the list of things to learn during my stay.

B3842413-4760-48AC-B764-22B2622976C7The ancient oaks bordering the road into town are reminiscent of the talking trees in Narnia, their long “arms” and “legs” stretching out and beckoning me into its center, welcoming me into the fold.  Closer to the shopping district, I happily discover something I always find encouraging in the main street of a small town.  The parking is all diagonal to the stores.  Somehow it’s friendlier.  Micanopy checks that box and provides a pleasing first impression.  Bordering the sidewalks are old one and two-story brick buildings, shaded by large palm trees, some adorned with pretty green vines that stand in contrast to the old brick.

Before I park, I drive up and down a few side-streets to get a sense of the place.  Homes are old, but in the best way.  Imposing manor houses with well-tended gardens watch over the town, sure in their important roles, while small cottages fill in the gaps on neat little side streets.  The ginormous live oaks do not discriminate, however, as they are found in yards of the great and small.

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Time to walk.  I spy two cute restaurants – one Cuban and the other more American.  But first, I head off to see what the storefronts have to offer.  I am immediately drawn in by what will be the first of several bookstore visits on this trip.  Who can resist when tables of books are piled high on the sidewalk, boasting a $1 sign for all?  I wander inside after scoring a copy of Eugene O’Neil’s Long Days Journey into Night and a collection of John Irving’s short stories.   Once inside, a quick glance confirms this is no ordinary bookstore.

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The Micanopy bookstore. It had no name, which is somehow perfect.

There should be a sign on the door that says “Warning:  Not recommended for those with OCD”.  Part bookstore, part treasure emporium, it overwhelms me in the best of ways (no OCD here).  Volumes of American history are piled six feet in the air.  Some stacks act as side tables to hold smaller prizes, others begin their climb to the rafters on old dining room tables and chifforobes.  9F97E433-8863-42CF-8B81-4CC0F3121F7CNeed dishes? Glassware?  Lamps?  Pottery?  This is your place.  Eventually I spot the proprietor (he is exactly how you are already imagining him) buried behind masses of cookbooks and heaps of modern novels.  He’s just recently read the Irving short stories and provides a thoughtful critique.  I hand him my two dollars and happily move on.  If this is all of Micanopy, it is enough.

But wait, there’s more!  The rest of the street boasts antique stores – mostly knick-knacky type affairs, with some interesting jewelry and local memorabilia as well.  The managers of the largest one are quite friendly, sharing their story of coming to town years ago (they seemed very fond of the 70s – both during that time and in the present).  Their stories of neighbors and friends hint of a friendly community, with parties and events and just everyday life that speaks of a colorful local life.

One more stop before I go – things are beginning to close as the dinner hour approaches.  I duck into the café to order something to go and finally remember to ask my question.

“How do you say the name of this place?”  A cheerful dark-skinned boy in the deli area solves the mystery.  “It’s Mi-can-O-pee”.  I ask again for clarification and practice it, repeating after him.  “The stress is on the O”, he says.  Finally satisfied with information and something to eat, I pay for my food and head out the door.

I know you’re thinking, “My can of pee”?  What kind of Indians were these people?  Come on now.  Try again.  In phonics terms, it’s a “short i”, or the first sound an “I” makes.  However you say it,  Micanopy is my cup of tea.

Happy with all my discoveries, I head out of town, pleased with my new-found knowledge that Florida is actually full of surprises.

Georgia summer – Sweet, Slow, and Simple

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Sweet small-town Madison, Georgia

While few lives are truly simple, traveling these next few days through the hearts of Georgia and Florida gave the illusion of just that.  I’m still not sure I can accurately express the importance or meaning behind this adventure of mine, but I fully embrace the concept of simply enjoying the journey.

These next steps and stops marked a shift on my expedition southward to the Keys.  The mountains now far in the rear-view, endless repetitive and somehow familiar-feeling stretches of country roads and small towns propelled me towards my destination.  The next two and a half days fell dreamily into step with summers in the deep south.  Slow-pace to no-pace, blazing sun you can feel sizzling up the back of your shirt from the blacktop beneath, and often nothing more than a Baptist church and a Dollar Store to mark the next placeholder on the map.

While I had a few planned stops to make, much of my focus now was geared to making up ground and cover the last 1000 miles in approximately 72 hours, still avoiding every highway possible.  I admit I felt challenged as I determined where to stop and what to see.  Little seemed obvious, other than I knew I had no desire to enter anywhere near Mickey’s world or Atlanta.

One of the initial strong feelings I had about undertaking this trip involved searching for the very best of small towns.  Clearly this means different things to different people, and before I left home I’m not sure I even knew exactly what it meant to me.  My conclusion is that it’s more emotion than checklist.  In the end, it’s not unlike touring colleges, looking for the perfect fit with my now senior-in-college daughter.  We would drive around a bit, park the car, and within two minutes (or maybe before we got out of the car), she’d decided if it has possibility or not.  That’s how towns are for me.  (And funny enough, a “cute town” was one of her main desires for a college choice.)

The no-highways rule lent itself to a good glimpse of many a small town, far more than I had on my list.  Trekking from northwest South Carolina to Southeast Florida provided lots of opportunities for exploration.

Of course I did get a late start to the day, thanks to the infinitely enchanting city of Greenville.  I had a hard time tearing myself away.  Once on the road, though, I made for Toccoa Falls, a small college town in North Georgia, not far from the Tennessee and South Carolina borders.  DSC_0005It boasted of a grand waterfall, and I couldn’t wait to check it out.  I found it on the Toccoa Falls college campus, just steps from the small bookstore.  For a dollar (not that anyone was checking that I could tell!), you head out the back door and along a very short path to the base of the 186 foot drop, complete with a perfect pool at its base. It was a little like walking through the looking glass.   Toccoa is Cherokee for “beautiful” and the waterfall is aptly named.  Though twenty-six feet higher than Niagra Falls, the water doesn’t thunder over the edge, but seems to suspend in midair, finally falling dramatically and elegantly to its destination.  Chatting with some other visitors, I learned of many other waterfalls and hikes in the nearby mountains.  I made a note to return to the North Georgia mountains (where I conveniently have a brother-in-law!), and take my leave to head further south.

 

One of many unexpected discoveries these few days included drive-bys of SEC and ACC  schools.  On this day alone I inadvertently passed both Clemson and the University of Georgia, the latter of which surprised me with the sheer number of the most amazing southern mansions (i.e. fraternity and sorority houses) lining the boulevards of Athens.  Quintessentially southern, it made me wish I could have seen them in their hey-day.

But I would get my antebellum fix in the town of Madison, Georgia, population 4,060.  While it’s probably likely that most every state in America has a Madison, this one in particular caught my attention as I researched my trail weeks ago. If your blood pressure needs a break, this is a fine place to take it.  Live oaks lined the quiet streets, where in the shadows beyond stood proud rows of well-kept and tasteful businesses, restaurants and homes. 30E537D2-2CC0-46AF-A231-513BB509F20D For a Saturday afternoon, the streets weren’t teeming with people, though there were enough wandering in and out of shops and restaurants to make it feel comfortable and cheery.  A great first find in my short stay was amazing ice cream at Scoops, which was equally friendly and adorable.

But now to wander on foot – my favorite way to truly discover a new place.  Raspberry sorbet in hand, I headed around the square, peering into shop windows as well as the imposing courthouse, which sits proudly overlooking the seat of of Morgan County.  Once I had my bearings (and yes, thankful always for my GPS on my phone), I drifted away from the center of town to see where the people lived.  I found both wide main streets and narrow alleyways, both lined with homes large and small, mostly old and unique.  I expectantly kept an eye out for Atticus Finch or maybe Truman Capote, just in case.  This was a place to live quietly but comfortably – regardless of square footage.  Most every home boasted a wide front porch, deep enough for a great swing but not so deep that you couldn’t accurately assess the world as it went by.  Funky gabled rooflines that I just know had reading nooks in every one were more the rule than the exception.  Sweet.  Big sigh.

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I was jerked back to 2018 with the buzzing of my phone.  It was the manager of the Hillside Family Campground, inquiring as to my arrival time.  Wow.  I’d better readjust my thinking and stop imagining genteel southern town life.  Time to move on.

Madison was truly a port in a middle-of-nowhere southern storm.  I quickly discovered the drive to the campground in Cochran was providing just the atmosphere I needed to mentally prepare myself for the $30 cabin of my future. I resumed counting Dollar Stores and Baptist churches.

There was never the letdown of not seeing both in every small village and town I swept through.  I could count on finding either a First Baptist or one named for either the town (i.e. McIntire, Walnut Creek, or Henderson Grove, just to name a few) or those touting biblical names like Bethany, Calvary and Corinth.  DSC_0016Occasionally they would attempt more of a welcoming attitude with monikers like Sunshine or Friendship.  Regardless of name, they were unfailingly present.  As I drove by them, I found myself praying they were more than clapboard and mortar memories and landmarks.  In the end I’m fairly confident that the Spirit washes over their occupants each Sunday, and likely still on Wednesday evenings as well.

 

96C1D8E7-727F-4C75-8E5A-C0240A9923E4My arrival in Cochran was expected and I was met by the sweet couple who managed the place.  After I paying them my $30, they hopped on their golf cart and proudly beckoned me to follow as they gave a quick tour.  My cabin was one of just a few, and all others were occupied by baseball families, here for a tournament in nearby Dublin. 9EF3E8BC-150F-4929-BAA9-1243D72EDD85 I checked out the bathroom and and showers, (nothing Madison-like, but certainly campground appropriate), and unpacked my car, surrounded by grubby infield-stained boys, all racing for the pool.

Earlier in the drive, I had the pleasant notion of an evening campfire.  I even stopped at the nearby Walmart –  almost as prolific as Dollar Stores in these parts – and stocked up on firestarter just in case there was no kindling.  However, the 90 degree temp chased me in to my tiny quarters, where the AC blared from an overworked window unit which was set at 72 but currently boasted 80.  It was a welcome relief.  I still had plenty of food and contentedly enjoyed more than a decent meal as well as a glass (okay – cup) of wine, toasting another fulfilling day on the road.

As I considered this fine Saturday, as well as the days that led up to it, I could honestly say, “So far.  So good.”  Yes, I thought, so, so good, and settled down to replay the day in my mind, content to drift off by the hard-working hum of the AC.

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My home for the night in Cochran, Georgia.

An Unexpected Treasure in Upcountry

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The approach to downtown Greenville and Falls Park on the Reedy River via the Swamp Rabbit Trail.

I’ve had a bit of a  love affair with South Carolina my entire adult life.  The roots of this fascination can be found in the most unlikely rite of passage; the college spring break.  While most kids trekked en masse to Florida for the storied beaches of the Lauderdales and Daytonas of the 1980s, we opted for the somewhat closer and less insane Hilton Head (though trouble could be found in you looked hard enough).  Back in the 80s, it wasn’t crowded, and renting a house on the beach was an easy and affordable thing to do.  I instantly fell in love with its wide beaches and palmetto trees, lagoons and tidal creeks, and this genteel life that was far removed from the mountains of home.  Oddly enough, not only did we claim Hilton Head as our spring break destination, but many of us continued the tradition as we packed up our little families years later and headed back.

However, at this particular juncture of my trip, I cross the border from North to South feeling a little lost.  My South Carolina = Low Country.  Beaches, shrimp boats, and well-loved cities like Beaufort and Charleston.  This Upstate stuff just south of the border from Asheville seems unfamiliar and nondescript.  My first impression (through the rainy windshield of a quickly passing thunderstorm) isn’t hitting me in any of the right places – but in fairness I had literally just come off of my mountaintop experience.  I can’t help but feel for the first time on my trip, a little let down.

Okay, so the feelings were likely spurred on with second-guessing my next big “first” of my trip – an Airbnb.  I realize I am a little late to this now-popular game, but I’m determined to give it a whirl.  If you’re traveling with others, this is surely not intimidating.  But for one person, one female person, (and with that one being on a super tight budget I might add), it’s a little more daunting.  It means going to someone’s home who you do not know, and staying in their house for the night.  Sounds wacky, right?  Well, everyone’s doing it, didn’t you know?

DSC_0001So, on to Greenville.  I had done my research and was prayed up on the way.  It was paid for, so I was committed.  The pictures looked great and the reviews indicated that the hostess was not an ax-murderer, so I needed to just get over myself.  In the end, maybe I can chalk it all up to great vetting on my part, or God, or both, but I hit the jackpot for my first try at this.  The house was great – a 100 year-old totally restored beauty  My cozy bedroom and well-appointed bath were on the second floor at the top of the wide mahogany staircase.  It was perfect.

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My hostess, Linda, was great too.  I had free reign in the kitchen, easy parking, and an invite to sit on the porch and have a drink.  She gave me a few suggestions for dinner after offering me some of what she and her friend were cooking up.  I opted for exploring first.  Part of the reason I chose this house was because it was on the famed Swamp Rabbit Trail, the 22 mile biking/running trail that covers much of the Greenville area and beyond.  From the first moment I had heard about it, I was curious.  A winding trail all through and around the city, with restaurants and even Furman College in its path, was way too tempting not to investigate. I knew it had to be great as many hotels, restaurants and even apartments all boasted their proximity to it in their advertising.

First off, however . . . food.  Linda had mentioned a taco place to me, but Taco Bell-like fare didn’t appeal, so I headed into town.  And just wow.  I had no idea what the heart of Greenville was all about.  Friday night and it was alive with people of all ages, sitting leisurely at outdoor cafes, window shopping and just enjoying the summer evening with friends.  As the sun began to set and the warm shine of sunset coupled with the soft glow of the lights strung across the streets, the town appeared painted gold.  It drew you in in that way you just instantly want to be part of it.  For now, I felt ridiculous in my sweaty running clothes.  There would be no getting out of the car here for a quick bite to eat.  Reluctantly, I headed back towards the house, stomach growling.

Everything on this trip so far just worked out, regardless of whether it was in my original plan or not.  Somehow this has provided in me a sense of peace and trust with it all.  My natural impulse was to regret that I couldn’t enjoy the night scene, but I felt satisfied with filing it away for another time.  However, food is important to me.  My otherwise sweet and patient disposition was in jeopardy of crumbling if I didn’t solve that problem, and I was determined to stick with my travel rule that it had to be something local.  And so, I remembered Linda’s taco suggestion reluctantly.  I just went with it though, and went in search of the nearby White Duck Taco Shop.  The named seemed a mixed message at best.  But, they were open for 30 more minutes and close to the house, so off

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White Duck Taco Shop

And again, things were just working out.  Snuggled next to the Birds Fly South Ale Project in an old industrial-feeling building, it was bustling with young and older, enjoying the evening both inside and out.  With a pretty tasty peach sangria to hold me over while I waited for my Bangkok Shrimp tacos, I sat and surveyed the place.  Welcoming, fun, open and cheerful.  By the time I headed out of town late the next morning, these would be the words I’d use to describe much of Greenville.

With a full belly followed by a great night’s sleep, I rose early to trek 4 miles on the Swamp Rabbit Trail (just a fun name, right!) IMG_0012to explore from a different perspective.  The many, many folks out running, walking and biking on the trail were friendly to a person, and the Reedy River, which cuts through downtown Greenville, proved to be mesmerizing with its flowing rocky falls that bend and break along the trail as the city sits on its banks and looks on approvingly.  This trek alone could stand as a post, but I’ll just encourage you to visit and see a few photos here.

 

 

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For me, I can only really get a sense of a place on foot, and last evening’s drive into downtown was nagging at me.  I mentally adjusted my schedule for the day, checked out of the gracious Linda’s Airbnb, and drove back to town one more time to explore the streets on foot.  I found a shopper’s paradise.   But wait – caffeine first.  So many cool choices, and even a stretch of downtown road bearing the name “Coffee Street”.  Clearly they take this seriously.  Buoyed with a first-rate chai latte, I poked my head into tea and spice shops and vintage clothing stores.  All the typical nicer chains were woven in amongst the rest as well.  The place reeks of a great girls’ weekend spot.

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Time to hit the road, but a little something to eat first.  I did the unthinkable and let the aromas of the Maple Street Biscuit Company pull me in for “The Five”, the flakiest of biscuits, piled with chicken breast, sausage gravy, wood-smoked bacon and cheddar cheese.  There wasn’t one thing on it that resembled my typical clean-eating regimen, but I just had to.  At least I wouldn’t need to eat again for a few days.  Heaven.

Most fun attribute of this popular joint?  They ask everyone the “question of the month” when you order.  The current offering was, “What superpower would you want to have?”  Easy.  I respond quickly.  “Flying!”

I’m thinking that this question concept turns the monotony of ordering into something a little more fun for both cashier and customer.  It turned hilarious, however, when the true purpose was revealed as I waited for my name to be called, only to realize that each order was called according to superpower.  Waffles for “Mind Reader”, Biscuits for “Time Traveler”, and yes, “The Five” for Flying.  I grabbed my life-sized biscuit, spread my wings, and headed out of town.  Georgia, here I come.

From the Valleys to the Mountains

 

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The mountains and valleys of the Carolina Blue Ridge

The first 12 years of my life were spent in the misnamed corner of central Pennsylvania known as Mosquito Valley.  It consisted of a narrow neighborhood of 20-25 houses nestled in between lush green mountains.  One way in, one way out.  A creek ran the length of it, and both our front and back property lines were graced with a stream.  I could name every family and child who lived in our neighborhood.  It was the dream of childhood playgrounds.  Free reign of the place, easily traversed on a bike in a few minutes.  Daily we collected salamanders, crayfish and minnows in our red wagon and tried to sell them to the few passers-by, aka neighbors.  Just down the street, Bower’s farm boasted a big barn with a hayloft made for climbing.  Many a skit was acted out in that loft with the posse of kids in our ‘hood.  We climbed in the Connor’s huge willow trees, with their fort-sized crevices big enough to hold 3 or 4 of our then pint-sized selves.  Good times.

In sixth grade we left our valley home and headed up Bastress Mountain at the top of Jack’s Hollow Road.  The neighbors were not so plentiful, but the woods provided its own fun.  I always felt like we lived on top of the world, and the best views of the valley below were just a short bike ride away.  They are still both the mountain and the valley in my dreams.

This was our simple life, and they are my forever memories.  I think about them now, as I work my way through the valleys in the southwest corner of Virginia on into the edges of Tennessee before climbing into the North Carolina Blue Ridge.  Memories of my carefree childhood seem fresh and near, though they are many years and hundreds of miles away.

Still, there is connection and it feels like home.  Sweet ranch homes with pristine yards, shiny pickup trucks and neat gardens dot the landscape on this early summer morning.  In the hills beyond, small farms with bulky black beef cattle add to the pastoral scene.  I notice that I can’t travel more than about ten miles without passing a country Baptist church. They each stand small and proud, likely still the solid rock in the world of many of these people.  This one fact is unlike my home, as the center of that universe was the beautiful old Catholic church which reigned postcard perfect on the side of the mountain watching over our beloved valley.

My plan on this day is an ambitious one, and ultimately will cover four states.  For those of you who have been with me on the journey thus far, you were likely beginning to wonder if I’d ever get out of Virginia!  Today’s the day!  My primary focus is the Blue Ridge Parkway, but there’s much to explore on the way.

There is something satisfying about crossing the border into a new state, especially on a road I’ve never seen.  I am tickled to have a peek into Tennessee.  The pastureland and valleys near small southwestern Virginia villages with kindly names like Friendship and Love’s Mill give way to thick woods as I approach the Tennessee border.  Unexpectedly I find myself on the edges of the Cherokee National Forest and the Virginia Creeper Trail.  Another note to self to return here when there is more time.  It is both beautiful and wild.  Biblical names abound this morning as well:  Damascus, Zionville, Canaan.

Slowly I begin the climb to Mountain City, Tennessee and onward to Boone, North Carolina.  Whether hiking or in a car, switchbacks on a mountain always fill me with anticipation for the payoff at the top.  I left the corner of Tennessee as quickly as I entered it, arriving in Boone.  The town is bustling with a little more activity than I was wanting to be a part of this day.  While beautiful, it has the feeling of a place that has been “discovered”.  A destination for the future, I decide, and press on.

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The town of Blowing Rock has been highlighted on my map and in my mind for a long time, and I eagerly head off down the mountain road to explore.  While she won’t confirm it, Jan Karon, author of the beloved Mitford Series, may have based her idyllic town of Mitford on Blowing Rock.  As a passionate lover of her characters and of Mitford itself, I couldn’t wait to see it.  Winding down the mountain a bit, I turn off to the entrance of the town.  I am equally amazed and disappointed.  When a place conjures up imaginings of cherished literary locations, I ache to explore in peace and quiet, as if its my personal discovery.  No such luck.  The town is crawling with people, and police direct the crazy traffic at every intersection as a tour of homes was underway.  This is not the Blowing Rock/Mitford that I longed for.  On the bright side, it was without a doubt the most quaint and perfect little town.  I could easily imagine Father Tim at the Episcopal church, walking down the street to the bakery and the bookstore, though he would hate all the traffic as well!  Every house, business, nook and cranny is bursting with personality.  I must go back!

9BBC43F2-0091-4BF7-A29A-F085EC3C6780My other Blowing Rock stop was at the town’s namesake.  The actual Blowing Rock juts out from the top of the mountain, providing a most magnificent view of the Blue Ridge.  It proved to be a perfect place to get my bearings before I hopped onto the Blue Ridge Parkway for the rest of the day’s drive.  And what a drive it was.

DSC_0144For the next 100 miles my head was on a swivel.  At times soaring over 6,000 feet above sea level, the Blue Ridge Parkway winds and twists its way across the spine of these North Carolina mountains.  I just don’t have the words for it.  “Wow” doesn’t cut it, but I know this was my exclamation dozens of times during that afternoon.  Usually followed by “You’ve got to be kidding me” and “Thank you Lord!”.  It was almost too much.  Is it possible to get a headache from overwhelming and staggering beauty?  My head, and my heart, hurt from it all.

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One of the many cool tunnels across the Parkway.

As each corner gives way to new remarkable views of gorges and waterfalls, I begin thinking about the creation of it all.  I am a Christian.  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Yes, yes, yes.  And I’m always amazed by His creation, His imagination.  It is all just breathtaking.  But the thing that strikes me in these first few days of discovery is not just the physical creation around me, but the emotion it generates within me.  How can the undeniable inner feelings of wonder and awe at the beauty of the world around us be the stuff of explained-away evolutionary apologists?  It seems so clear to me, on that mountaintop, that He created this scenic landscape, and then He provided within us the ability to love it, to feel it deeply.  In His image.  A perfect marriage of Creator and creation.

DSC_0186I’m hopeful that my photos will help tell this story, as I cannot begin to do it justice.  It would require great poetry or beautiful prose, neither of which I have been blessed with.  Hopefully, however, it is enough to inspire you to take a drive and see it for yourself.  For my part, I head south down out of the sky and back to the valleys below.