The ascent—or descent, depending on how you looked at it—into the grind of our daily lives was so slow, we didn’t notice it creep up on us. Late nights at work became the rule, not the exception, for both of us. My husband of five years, Jason, and I had become workaholics.
One exhausted Friday night, as we silently ate our ordered-in pizza dinner and read through work emails on our phones, Jason surprised me.
“We should go on vacation,” he said, just as his phone buzzed yet again.
Not even sure if he was entirely serious, I jumped on board. I told him I agreed, and unlocked my phone—this time, to research a vacation destination. Peering onto my screen from beside me, he suggested somewhere outdoorsy.
My thumbs landed on a locale within driving distance, offering a bounty of fresh air, trails and a bit of eco-culture: Sebring, Florida and the surrounding cities of Avon Park and Lake Placid.
As fervent outdoor enthusiasts, Jason and I were thrilled to begin our first day at the stunning Highlands Hammock State Park. Our drive there was pleasant, with green shrubs and trees flanking the highway. While I tried to relax and let go, my phone was beckoning me to check my email from my purse. I took a look, and knew immediately it was a mistake as the stresses of work-life came flooding back in.
“Work can wait, babe,” Jason reminded me. He had been brave enough to turn off his notifications completely.
I conceded and returned my gaze to the pine trees and oak shrubs adorning the landscape around us as we neared our destination.
The park was more breathtaking than I imagined. Beneath a canopy of oaks and hickory trees, we wandered along the trail. We were so immersed in the beauty of our surroundings that the only words we spoke were to point out a butterfly, lizard or plant we’d never seen before, which happened quite often.
Unfortunately the serenity of the moment was broken when my phone buzzed in my pocket. Jason heard it and quietly teased, “Sure is nice not having my phone go off all the time.”
I smiled, shook my head and chose to ignore the notification.
A narrow catwalk led us over the Cypress Swamp. Surrounded by tall trees, the swamp felt almost magical, with aquatic flora floating along the surface of the water. We’d read online that alligators could sometimes be seen here, so we crossed our fingers and searched the water.
“I think I see one,” Jason whispered and pointed across the water. At first I thought so too, but soon realized it was a piece of driftwood that fooled our eyes.
After a few more minutes of careful searching, I spotted ripples. An alligator was moving along so slowly, that if I hadn’t been staring at that spot, I would have missed it. I pointed it out to Jason, and we both marveled at the creature, the top of its head and eyes just breaking the surface of the swamp.
As I watched the alligator slowly move about, something clicked in my mind: if I had been watching my phone instead of living in the moment, I could have missed this. Emails would always be there. There was nothing special about the daily grind. These moments, however, were one-of-a-kind.
I was filled with courage: I whipped out my phone, opened my settings and turned off my notifications. Ah, sweet relief!
I got a fist-bump and an approving nod from Jason.
Following our refreshing visit to Highlands Hammock State Park, we headed to a caladium farm outside of Lake Placid for a tour. I’d read that this area is known as “The Caladium Capital of the World,” and I’d hoped to buy some bulbs of my own to bring back home.
Caladiums are large-leafed plants known for their shape (like an elephant’s ear) and variety of colors, including pink, white and red. The farm was more than 900 acres, one of the world’s largest caladium farms. I was amazed at how, from a distance, the colorful leaves look like flowerbeds. Following our tour, I purchased a package of mixed-colored caladium bulbs, eager to add their whimsical touch to our backyard. One of the farmers mentioned to us that Lake Placid holds an annual caladium festival in late July, featuring entertainment, food, art, and booths selling bulbs and plants. Jason and I agreed we’d have to come back for it.
Our second day was spent exploring Archbold Biological Station, just south of Lake Placid. We’d read about it when we’d done our trip planning, and learned that Archbold is a world-renowned ecological center that manages more than 20,000 acres of land within the headwaters of the Florida everglades.
We had scheduled a two-hour nature tour led by one of the station’s educators, which began in the Learning Center. The building had a well-manicured entrance and a sleek, silver, energy-efficient roof. We were told it is a LEED Platinum building, creatively constructed to maximize sustainability.
Our guide explained to our tour group how Archbold had become a world leader in biological conservation by conducting research on plants, animals and even chemicals.
“Archbold’s efforts have improved the status of many endangered plants and animals,” she told our group.
After an indoor tour, our guide led us on a nature trail. We discovered that this area is one of the most threatened habitats on earth.
“Look there,” our guide pointed as a beautiful blue bird zipped by.
“What you’re seeing is the Florida scrub-jay,” she told us as we watched it fly about. “The scrub-jay is native to Florida, and can’t be found anywhere else in the world.”
Another fascinating feature of the landscape our guide pointed out was Lake Wales Ridge, predominantly a scrub habitat marked with clusters of shrubs growing along sand dunes.
I was mesmerized for the remainder of our hike. I admired the gorgeous birds and endangered flowers, and examined trees and shrubs I’d never seen before. It’s one thing to watch a nature documentary, but to actually walk the natural face of the planet made me feel revived.
Following the tour, we visited Maxwell Groves, a cozy country store in Avon Park set amid a grove of orange trees. The smell alone was heavenly. I closed my eyes, took a deep, cleansing breath and absorbed the sweet scents that traveled on the breeze.
Their catalog of oranges was filled with every delicious variety imaginable. I had no idea oranges came in so many types. The Honeybell—an extremely rare and extremely juicy hybrid—sounded particularly mouthwatering. Their menu also included an assortment of tropical fruit wines, marmalades and jellies, but we were particularly interested in one item: dairy-free orange-juice ice cream. We were told by several locals that it was a treat we absolutely had to try before we left.
We each ordered an ice cream cone in the “must-have” flavor, and stepped outside to sit on a pair of large rocking chairs on the porch. As the breeze rustled through the orange grove, I looked at Jason and smiled, my heart feeling full.
This time when I took out my phone, it was to snap a photo of the moment.
Enjoying the beauty of nature in Sebring was the reminder we needed that life isn’t about work, or money. Life is meant to be lived. Nature is meant to be enjoyed.
Sebring has become a retreat for us. There are still hectic days, weeks and months, but we always have our special place to bring us back from the grind and breathe new life into us.Take a breather in Sebring, Florida.