CONCH DREAMS: ROLLING DOWN TO THE FLORIDA KEYS

Few things compare to coming home from a chilly Tennessee landscape to a sunny-and-75 Floridian backdrop for Thanksgiving Break. Sunshine is never in short supply and the ocean is only a stone’s throw away. Having such an awesome place to call home also calls for adventures whenever I go back. Stephanie, a good friend of mine, heard that I was coming down for the holiday and proposed that we take a trip down to the Conch Republic – The Florida Keys. For the not so familiar, The Keys are a string of small coral cay islands off the southern coast of Florida; they span an odd 110 miles and are connected by long causeways and bridges. As a perfect place for a day trip Stephanie and I, along with our friend Madison, decided to pay the sunny island chain a visit.

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We parted from the mainland early in the day, hoping to catch cool morning ocean breezes on the ride down. Our trip was centered around making it to Bahia Honda State Park, one of our favorite spots on Big Pine Key. Our early departure made our eyelids heavy with sleep, despite our excitement and cheerful disposition, so we decided to stop in at a local coffee shop for a pick me up. As we drove down the one long road that connects the islands Processed with VSCO with hb2 presetI spotted a blinking neon sign that read “COFFEE”. Without thinking twice we pulled off to the side of the road and entered the tiny café . The interior was idyllic; a few 50’s style metallic tables dotted the linoleum floors, and a glass sandwich and coffee bar boxed out from the far wall. The shop owner, a Cuban-American woman in her mid to late 50’s, was eager to take our orders and make our drinks. She whipped up one of my all time Cuban drinks, a cortadito,  in no time. Wide awake and ready for sandy adventures we piled back into the car and set back en route to Bahia Honda. We rolled down the windows and played  feel-good music as we watched the sun ascend on our drive down. Just as it began to peek its golden face over the horizon, we arrived at Bahia Honda. We gathered our bags and ventured out to find our place for the morning. After a few minutes of searching, we found a nice spot by a sea grape tree; we plopped our blankets down on the soft sand and listened to the gentle crashing of the waves for a while. We sat, almost motionless, taking in the halcyon aura of the moment. Time seemed to hang in place as we basked in each other’s company and the picturesque natural beauty around us. Madison let out an audible sigh of contentment as we sat in the still cool morning. In a state of sheer happiness, we decided to venture out and explore other areas of the key.  Cutting through the brush, we stumbled upon a gravel trail that led to the base of an abandoned bridge. I climbed up on to the support beams and monkeyed around for a while, taking pictures as I went. Eager to find the bridge access, we continued on around the island; kicking around dried coconuts and taking in the sun’s rays as we walked around the island cleared our minds from  worries that previously festered.

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We eventually found the base of the bridge and ventured down its length. We took a few pictures, observed the landscape from a different perspective, and contemplated on how lucky we were to claim such a beautiful state as home. The sun was shining at full force by this moment, so we decided to kick it back to the shady spot by the sea grape tree for a little more R & R. As soon as we got back to our original spot, we tore into some of the snacks we brought with us; Dried fruit, granola, and sandwiches filled out stomachs and lulled us into a light food-induced slumber. Relaxed and satiated, we napped peacefully under the sun’s brightness for a while. When we awoke, we decided to stretch our adventure further and drive down to Key West and the Southernmost Point.

PASTEL EDIFICES AND SUN KISSED SNOWBIRDS

The long stretch of road was filled with warm rays and more music. Slowly but surely, we began to encounter more and more city life as we moved away from the natural preserves and moved into more lively residential areas. A few minutes drive led us to Key West, the southernmost island in the Keys. This enclave has an energy all of its own. With architecture dating late 1800s to early 1900s, the structures give the town an elegant but eccentric vibe. Homes with asymmetrical facades welcome locals into a place where they can not only relax, but have a good time as well; the countless widow’s walks provide places for residents to catch sun rays with a bird’s eye view from the comfort of their own homes. Homes, businesses, restaurants, and bars are all painted  a soft, welcoming assortment of pastel colors flooding the streets with a peaceful spirit at first glance. As we walked down the streets into the heart of the island city, the calm ambiance was cut by the sounds of music flowing through the air. From all directions, lively sounds and sights caught our attention and beckoned us deeper into the entrails of Key West. The work of local artists lined the windows of several shops, the sounds of tourists singing classic 80’s tunes flowed from karaoke bars, and the smells of local restaurants drifted through the air. Bicycle-mounted snowbirds rode down the street as their laughter inspired our own. We stopped into Truval Ice Cream and Treats, a small dessert shop on the intersection of Truman and Duval Street. Powerless to the calling of cold treats on a hot day, we indulged in a few scoops of ice cream and gelato before taking our final strolls around town.

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We made our way down to the noteworthy Southernmost Point Buoy. Claimed to be exactly 90 miles from the island of Cuba, this buoy is a popular tourist spot for photographs. As we approached the intersection on which it lies, we caught a glimpse of the crowds waiting to see it up close; The lengthy line that protruded from its base dissuaded us from standing by for a photo op, so we decided to ramble around the nearby neighborhood as a close to the day instead. As our sun kissed bodies sauntered down the old streets of Key West, we reflected on the day’s adventures and  took in the last few rays of sunshine as the sun set behind the horizon. We loaded back into Stephanie’s buggy and started the trek back to the mainland. The ride back to Miami was long, but very much worth the quality time, adventures, and relaxation that we experienced during our visit. Key West has always been a place to forget about the worries of everyday life and remember that every once in a while, it’s healthy to switch on to island time.

 

CONCH DREAMS: ROLLING DOWN TO THE FLORIDA KEYS

Exploring Max Patch Mountain

Living just outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee has afforded me with several opportunities to explore the Southeast’s natural beauty. At the summer’s close, I began to compile a list of places in the South I wanted to visit before the year was up. Number one on my list was Max Patch mountain, a bald that lies on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Friends of mine had been before, and through their stories and social media posts I began to fall more and more in love with this wonder and I knew I had to visit.

THE FIRST STEP

As much as I love solo travel, I also enjoy sharing adventure with friends and family. I decided to pitch the idea of the excursion to my roommate, Andy, and after sharing a few pictures and a speedy conversation he was as excited about the whole thing as I was. Wishing to keep it simple and easy we invited only one other person, our friend Emily who is also keen on spontaneous trips and natural beauty.

PIT STOPS AND CITY WANDERINGS

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That same weekend we packed a few things into Andy’s Forester and took off to see what this mountain had to offer. The drive up was smooth, interrupted only by a stop in Knoxville for lunch. A few minutes of strolling around town brought us to KBrew, a small and simple coffee shop on North Broadway. The interior was standing room only, but had a laid back atmosphere that we all enjoyed. We stopped in for some drinks and made conversation with the young barista; soft-spoken and elegant, she was friendly enough to entertain us while we stood around drinking our brews. Being the only local that we knew, we asked her for some lunch recommendations. She suggested Yassin’s Falafel House, a local favorite, for lunch. Without question we set out to find the eatery. Friendly staff greeted us as we entered and gazed at the menu, drooling over all of the delicious options. After a few minutes, with full stomachs and happy hearts, we left Knoxville and set out toward the bald.

COTTON CANDY SKIES AND CONTEMPLATION

Leaving the main highway we turned on to a long, winding, dusty dirt road that led to Max Patch. The ride up seemed eternal. Switchback after switchback we anticipated arriving at the top; about half an hour into the drive on the country road our phones lost service meaning that we would have to rely on the power of road signs to reach the bald, a task daunting for any millennial accustomed to the luxuries of smartphones. Luckily, the roads were well marked so getting to the bald was a breeze. We arrived late in the afternoon, right as the sun was beginning to set; the sky was painted a pastel pink and blue, and hints of lilac accented the few clouds that still lingered above. Energized and excited we danced around and cheered in celebration of the beauty that lay ahead. We gathered our belongings and trekked up the narrow path that cut through the high grass and led to the top. Upon arrival, we saw groups of fellow explorers plopped down in several Processed with VSCO with hb2 presetclumps across the bald. Tents were pitched and lawn chairs were ready to support the bums of tired travelers, providing relief for achy backs and sore feet. My friends and I decided to bypass a tent altogether. The forecast called for clear skies all weekend so we decided that sleeping under the starts would be best. As night fell, cool breezes swept past our faces as we enjoyed each other’s company and shared stories, thoughts, and preoccupations about life. Lying in our sleeping bags with nothing but skies overhead soothed our minds and brought us internal peace. I remember falling asleep before the other two, cozied up in my warm sack as soon as the temperatures began to drop. At some point in the night, Emily turned to me and shook me awake. What I saw right above made my heart skip a beat: a sky so massive, so vast that I could not comprehend its extent. Littered with stars, the sky that I feasted on that night was unlike any other night sky I had seen that year. Gleaming and bright, the moon and stars shed their light and provided the perfect backdrop as we chatted about life and our place on this planet. Slowly but surely we drifted off to sleep, lulled into a trance by the gentle winds that blew by.

COOL MORNINGS, SUN RAYS, AND DEPARTURES

In the morning the sun rose slowly, brightening the sky as moments passed. We perked up in our sleeping bags and peered into the dimly lit land around us; separated from school and work, this was the perfect place to come and recharge, and  we all agreed. The stillness of the night continued in our spirits as we watched the sun come up and warm our faces. With observant eyes we studied the other campers on the bald, listening in to their conversations and starting our own. Before long, we could feel the sun’s energy beating       Processed with VSCO with hb2 presetProcessed with VSCO with hb2 preset

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down on us, warming our blood and prepping us for the day. A few minutes of morning yoga started our bodies off on a good foot, and a hearty breakfast shortly followed. Oats with chia seeds, dried berries, hemp seeds, and bananas filled our cheeks as we listened to soft tunes from a portable speaker. Limber, energized, and revitalized we began to gather our belongings and head on to our next adventure. Our time at Max Patch gave us something we were longing for: a place to disengage from the every day and enlist in meaningful conversation with friends. Leaving the stresses of school behind, ignoring work for a while, and taking to the mountains to breathe fresh air is just what we needed, and it is a place that will live in my memory forever.

 

Exploring Max Patch Mountain