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Summer in the south 2023

Bella and I joined the Ranch (foster care organization) for the 2023 summer vacation. These vacations are special because they give foster children the chance to see what is beyond the Florida state line. This means they get to see mountains, waterfalls, breathtaking views, and participate in some really cool activities. I won’t speak to the foster children for their privacy, but instead I’ll talk about me and Bella’s experience.

This trip would take us from Florida to West Virginia and back. Along the way we had notable stops which include Lake Jocassee South Carolina, Smoky Mountains North Carolina, New River Gorge West Virginia and Charleston in South Carolina.

Our first night stop was in Northern Florida just before the state line. If there is one thing I’ve learned in the last few years of traveling, give yourself an extra day before and/or after for taking it easy. On this trip, instead of leaving in the early morning and trying to make it to South Carolina, we left in the afternoon for Lake Mary FL which meant we didn’t have to rush to the destination. I feel giving yourself this extra day lets you enjoy the journey more.

This is what our trip basically consisted of during the 3 weeks of our trip

When we got to Lake Jocassee in South Carolina I couldn’t help but admire that the lake fingers were graced by the backdrop of mountains. What’s interesting about this lake is that it is not a natural lake. These are actually flooded valleys in the mountains. When they built a dam everything upstream is flooded, so under these waters are towns and history of the old south. I love to free dive, but diving here is freaky because you’ll run along the bottom then suddenly the bottom drops steep and visibility goes away. 

Swimming in this water is not exactly refreshing, coming from a Florida boy, it’s cold! There was something therapeutic about it though. Since I am a strong swimmer I stayed in the water to help with the kids in the water, which meant I was cold most of the day. At one point I was just basking in the cold water and moving my body slowly, just telling my brain “yes the water” and acknowledging the discomfort and pushing it out. It’s like what you might do for an ice bath. I think it is healthy to have those mental exercises where you can control what you feel.

Credit: https://visitoconeesc.com/lake-jocassee-is-open/

We had a hike on a trail called Big Creek trail. It led to a nice swimming hole in a creek with a jumping rock. This trail is in the Smoky Mountain National Park, the section that borders North Carolina with Tennessee. At that point, when you enter the trail head, you cross the state line for a minute. We didn’t do that Baxter Creek trail but I feel like mentioning it because I’ve been to Mt Sterling a couple times. The hike to that summit is moderate, but so worth it. Midway through the hike you can see where the vegetation changes from those lower altitude to higher altitude trees, mostly conifers. Once you reach the top there is an old fire tower you can climb for a stunning view of the Smokies. I love this hike because you have to journey just to get to the trail head of the mountain. 

We didn’t go to Mt Sterling, but I saw the peak from a distance. And that photo of the Baxter Creek sign with the trail view is not mine, but I want to show what you’ll see just from just the journey. I love these signs. Once you have a life experience you know the significance that words can have in your mind. For me, Mt Sterling is a significant memory and I love it, so seeing a humble sign like these evoke so much emotion. And to think that such a simple sign, that exists in this spot all year, must give comfort to those hiking this wilderness and find relief and respite in knowing that a touch of civilization is within reach. One day I want to backpack this trail to Mt Sterling and camp for one night on the ridge.

Credit: https://www.pigeonforge.com/hike/baxter-creek-trail/
Credit: https://www.pigeonforge.com/hike/baxter-creek-trail/

Our main destination was a resort on the New River Gorge, called Adventures On The Gorge. The bridge that crosses the gorge is absolutely awe-inspiring! I recommend looking up the history of the bridge, and especially see it for yourself. I admire buildings like the Empire State Building, but there’s something about massive man-made structures in nature that showcase our potential.

There is so much history in this area, from coal production namely. The greenery in this photo was not present in the past, it was more barren from the mining and deforestation. This land experienced the havoc of industrialization and survived into the beauty it is today. You can still visit some of these old coal mine towns. Kaymoor is one I’ve visited in the past. We’re accustomed to catered and preserved history in museums but Kaymoor is abandonment in existence, nothing stops one from exploring the once bustling town now covered in foliage and rusting structures.

We participated in numerous activities as a group while at the gorge such as paddle boarding, rappelling, zip lining, hiking and (my absolute favorite) white water rafting.

I love experiencing new things at least once, but after the first and second time, if the outcome becomes predictable, I get a little bored. White water rafting is always different! The water never flows the same. I’ve been rafting about 8 times now and each time is different. I love the unpredictability and uncertainty of the trip outcome – blame the Sagittarius in me. The river is so reminiscent of life, there are calm open waters, the turbulence of the rapids and the opportunity to enjoy the ride, the Eddy behind rocks that gives those little spots of respite in the chaos. 

View of the New River Gorge bridge
Credit: https://newrivergorgeadventurecenter.com/upper-gauley-river-white-water-rafting/

The last stop in our 3 week journey was Charleston, South Carolina. Prior to this trip, I knew nothing about Charleston. Learning about something as you experience it can sometimes empower the experience even more. Like a good story, learning about the character behind the character bonds the reader to the subject. I had no idea how important Charleston was in the Civil War, but visiting Fort Sumter, the place where the first shot of the Civil War was fired, ties the knowledge in my mind into tangible moments and, again, evokes emotions.

Charleston, as a city, is really good at preserving and reminiscing about its history. It is a big city but there are hardly any tall buildings, the tallest are the spires that jut from the cathedrals in the city. There are colors that speckle the cityscape, a reprieve from modern glass and steel.

We also visited a plantation, a place of history but also a place of sadness. Slavery memorial is abundant in Charleston, and the silence that surrounds a plantation allows the mind to imagine the things early Americans had to endure.

Raising of the flag at Fort Sumter, location of the first shot of the American Civil War
Statue extending a hand praying protection over Fort Sumter in the distance

Travelling is something I am sure a lot of people enjoy. For me, I love to find ways to attach that emotion or significance into a trip. Like a trail head sign that catalyzes memories, finding ways to intertwine knowledge, emotion or significance with a new experience makes memories more intimate and enduring. I love forward to more adventures and memory making.