Our Dream Beach Trip on the Florida Coast

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Florida Beach Trip May 2014

Recently, we started decorating our walls with memories of our marriage, our travels, our love. I made a realization while perusing my digital photos for wall art. I noticed that my husband and I had not taken a real vacation since our five year anniversary trip to Jamaica in 2012. Lee had grown tired of accompanying me to television stations, Washington DC, and other work related destinations for Invisible War screenings. I couldn’t blame the guy; he has probably seen the Invisible War twenty plus times. You can only imagine how many times I have seen it. I had been on multiple work trips since I got my service dog Onyx so my traveling itch got scratched.

Although this trip too was inspired by another must do, I promised him this time that I would not make this trip work related in any way. I had to promise him this before he agreed to go on the trip. He understood the importance of going to K9s for Warriors for the service dog re-evaluation test. He supports anything related to Onyx given how much she has changed not only my life, but ours for the better.  Before Onyx, I had to have my husband come with me to various work related events, or anywhere for that matter.  In a way, he was a service human.  I could not leave the house alone without having a full blown anxiety attack. Every time it was the same thing, I couldn’t go alone and my mind would find any excuse to get out of going, including real illness.

We are both on a fixed income (dependent on the federal government) so we have to be smart about using our money and getting the best bang for our buck. Since, I had to be in Jacksonville, Florida for my one year service dog re-certification test, I decided to make the best of the time we were there. Lee absolutely loves the water, especially the ocean. I see his whole demeanor change when he is swimming or near water. We currently live in the mountains of western Maine and we love it but I can tell Lee yearns for the water. So I planned a trip that Lee would love. I love visiting National Parks and Lee loves the beach so we both indulged in our passions on this trip.

Our first stop was the Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park in Atlantic Beach just north of Jacksonville. We stopped by a Target, picked up a couple beach chairs, towels, an umbrella for Onyx, and headed to the beach. We didn’t mind spending $100 on the beach stuff because we wanted the experience to be comfortable, relaxing, and perfect for all of us. We decided that we would give our beach stuff to someone who could appreciate it when we left Florida. Most of the places we visited were city, state, or federal lands, so our trip on a whole was fun yet affordable.  Hanna Park is indeed a hidden gem. While planning our trip on Mapquest, I zoomed in on the green space by the beach, noticed the name of the park, and then added it to the list of destinations to check out. The entry fee is $3 per carload and it appears to be a Jacksonville city park. It was the perfect place to begin our vacation.

Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Jacksonville, Florida
Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Jacksonville, Florida

While visiting the Jacksonville area, we stayed at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort in Ponte Vedra Beach. We rented a villa (1119) with our military discount and didn’t regret our decision to pay a little bit more at all. The villa was spacious and comfortable. Our deck offered beautiful views of the resort and grounds. There was a convenient pet area for Onyx. We have traveled a lot and I can count on the Marriott to provide us with a safe, clean, and comfortable room. I became a rewards member as a result and every time I stay at the Marriott I earn points for free stays at their other hotels. The Sawgrass Marriott is by far one of the nicest Marriott hotels I have stayed at. The accommodations, the service, and the grounds were great. We will definitely choose this location again in the future when we come back to visit the awesome folks at K9s for Warriors.

The Villas, Sawgrass Marriott Resort, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
The Villas, Sawgrass Marriott Resort, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

The Sawgrass Marriott Resort also has a private Cabana Beach Club on Ponte Vedra Beach. You can only get to this private beach via the Marriott shuttle. Although it was nighttime when we visited the Marriott beach front, I wanted to take advantage of the quiet, relaxing space for my daily meditation. While I was meditating with the waves, my Pandora Yoga Radio station, and my dog, Lee was swimming in the olympic size pool with one of our veteran friends. I felt one with God at this location. All I could do was thank Him for all that I have been blessed with. I noticed while sitting alone on the beach in the dark that I didn’t feel fearful that someone was going to attack me or kill me. Lee even checked in on me because he knew that I was alone on the beach in the dark. I told him I wasn’t scared because I had Onyx. I rejoiced in the freedom from fear and shot the below photo. I wanted to remember this moment in time. I am thankful to be alive and well and provided for.

Cabana Beach Club, Sawgrass Marriott Resort, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
Cabana Beach Club, Sawgrass Marriott Resort, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

K9s for Warriors in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida is the reason we went on this vacation. Last year in May of 2013 I attended the three week service dog training and it was here that I was paired with Onyx. I went through the training with four other veterans: Ginger & Duke (Army), Amy & Macy (USAF), Stephanie & Chinook (USMC), and Joane & Lilly (Army). We had a great time together during the program and decided to meet up again for a reunion when we came back for our service dog re-evaluation test (one year later). We took the test first thing Monday morning then a couple of us spoke to the local television station about our experiences and how our service dogs have helped us heal. We learned that K9s for Warriors is in the process of building a new training campus and we plan on attending the grand opening in December. The new, larger site will allow them to help more veterans at one time. And, it’s another excuse to visit with the people who changed our lives and made all of this possible.

K9s for Warriors Graduates (May 2013)
K9s for Warriors Graduates (May 2013)

After completing our tasks at K9s for Warriors, we hopped in our Dodge Charger and were on our way to Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St Augustine, Florida. This location is less then 45 minutes from Ponte Vedra Beach so because I love my National Parks, we had to stop in real quick so I could experience all of it. The last time I was there with my K9s for Warriors class it started thundering so they closed the top part of the monument. I just had to go back so I could visit the top of the monument and to get a stamp cancellation for my National Parks Passport book. Disabled Americans are eligible for a National Park’s Access Pass so our entry into this site and all the other National Parks in this great nation are free. I’m so glad I went back. Lee was recovering from surgery so he had to take it easy but I visited every inch of the place while I was there. I turn into a little kid with a strong desire to explore and learn when I set foot on these sacred grounds. I love learning about American history. I support our park’s efforts to pass on our heritage so that others can appreciate it too. Leave no trace.

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, St Augustine, Florida
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, St Augustine, Florida

Thanks to my National Parks Passport book, I knew that Fort Matanzas National Monument was only a 18 minute drive from Castillo de San Marcos. This park is located on the Mantanzas River in St Augustine and you must take a guided boat ride with the Park Rangers to the location. For most this isn’t a big deal but for me it would have been in the past. At the visitor center, I picked up the ticket for the boat and was informed that dogs were not allowed on the boat. At first I panicked but then I decided to go any way, since it was only a 45 minute round trip adventure, and Lee offered to watch Onyx. Once I got down to the boat, I learned that service dogs are allowed on the boat.  I worked through my anxiousness of being alone. I used the time to meditate on the beauty and tranquility in front of me as opposed to what was going on in my head. I began to relax and enjoy the adventure as the moments passed. By the end of it, I was laughing and joking with strangers. And when I went back to the Park Ranger in the gift shop to let him know that service dogs are allowed on the boat, I found him and Lee having a great ole time. It turns out the parks employee owns a home in Northern Maine.

Fort Matanzas National Monument, St Augustine, Florida
Fort Matanzas National Monument, St Augustine, Florida

We left Fort Matanzas and headed to Flagler Beach next. In my planning stages for this Florida trip, I realized that on my way to Canaveral National Seashore, I would be going right through this quaint beach town. It just so happens that my Uncle Mike lives there with his wife, Jean. We went out to dinner, caught up, and spent the night. My aunt and uncle live in their retirement dream home; it overlooks the Atlantic ocean and is located in a quiet, safe community along the A1A. I took advantage of the quick and easy access to the beach front so I could meditate in solitude. I went down to the beach with Onyx in the evening and again in the morning. I felt safe here too. We had a wonderful time with our family and we look forward to visiting with them in the future. Flagler Beach is about 1.25 hours south of Ponte Vedra Beach so we can visit my family every time we come back to K9s for Warriors. This won’t be the last time that we travel the Florida coast. It was not what I expected. It’s better.

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Onyx at Flagler Beach, Florida

After my aunt fed us a great breakfast and I meditated on the beach, we jumped on the highway and headed south to Canaveral National Seashore in Titusville, Florida. I far underestimated the grandness of these federal lands and decided that we will have to come back to explore this area further. This time we were going to focus on the National Seashore and enjoy the benefits of the beach, waves, sun, and peace. But when we come back, we will visit Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and so much more. We drove into the Canaveral National Seashore area, found ourselves the perfect spot, and again relaxed and enjoyed the tranquility of the beach. This place was not only beautiful but there were not a whole lot of people there on the day we were. It was perfect for a couple of veterans with PTSD. We utilized each and every moment of the time we spent on this national seashore. Entry to this park was free too because it is part of the national park system. I spent all my time in the sun and Lee spent all his time in the water. It was just the way we liked it.

Canaveral National Seashore, Titusville, Florida
Canaveral National Seashore, Titusville, Florida

After we left Canaveral National Seashore, we jumped on 95 South and headed to Boynton Beach. We planned a visit with my best friend, Nicole, since the age of three years old. I knew she lived near the water but I didn’t know she lived on the water. Her condo is located on a water street so they can pull their boat right up beside their deck. I had never seen that before. Nicole had to work the next day so Lee and I decided to visit a couple of Florida state parks. The first one we visited was the Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound, Florida. It cost us $6.00 per carload for entry into this park. We learned that this state park was the home of the 801st Signal Training Regiment at Camp Murphy. Both Lee and I worked with classified communications in the Air Force, so we felt a connection with this location. We climbed to the top of the Hobe Mountain Observation Tower (86 feet) so we could say we had been to the highest point in South Florida south of Lake Okeechobee. Both Lee and I agreed that when we came back here, we would have mountain bikes. It was the perfect setting for camping and riding your bike on well maintained trails in the wilderness.

Hobe Mountain, Jonathan Dickinson State Park, Hobe Sound, Florida
Onyx at Hobe Mountain Observation Tower, Jonathan Dickinson State Park, Hobe Sound, Florida

Because we came to Florida to spend time on the beach, after we left Jonathan Dickinson State Park, we went straight to John D MacArthur Beach State Park in North Palm Beach, Florida. It was the closest beach state park geographically to our location. We made a beeline to this place and once again were completely surprised by what we discovered. We stopped in to the visitor center because Lee wanted to kayak. They rented them by the hour and he took his kayak down the Intracoastal Waterway. I grabbed our beach stuff and headed to the beach. A state parks employee picks you up at the visitor’s center in a golf cart and takes you across the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway. It would be an easy walk but most are carrying beach stuff, fishing equipment, etc. There are two boardwalks that lead you down to the beach area. Again, not only was the location absolutely beautiful but there were not a whole lot of people there while we were visiting. It was peaceful, serene, and relaxing. Lee met up with us at the beach. Of course, he spent most of his time in the water while I basked in the warmth of the sun. The fee here was $5.00 per carload.

John D MacArthur Beach State Park, North Palm Beach, Florida
John D MacArthur Beach State Park, North Palm Beach, Florida

We left MacArthur Beach in time to meet up with Nicole in Boynton Beach after she got home from work. We met up on the deck of her place overlooking the water streets and proceeded to bond. I was looking forward to spending time with Nicole, especially now that I am more in control of the PTSD. Lee and I are both doing so much better since I got Onyx and Nicole, being the dog lover that she is, completely understood the healing power of dogs. It was an unspoken understanding, one that makes me feel more comfortable when I don’t have to explain. I always struggle with how much to tell so that others won’t take my PTSD personally. Nicole just accepted every stage of the PTSD and loved me no matter what. She understood that I isolated as a way to cope and was glad to see that Onyx had helped me past that stage of my life. You cannot believe how thankful I am to be free to do what I want because of Onyx. She makes me feel safe and capable of exploring and being the adventurous person I always was. My husband is no longer burdened with taking care of me and always accompanying me everywhere because I was too afraid to go it alone.  He can relax too. We had a great time with Nicole and we didn’t even leave her place once, except to go for a boat ride to take a dip in the Atlantic Ocean one last time before we left. We literally got off the boat and got onto the plane to go home. And we gave our beach chairs and umbrella to Nicole. Perfect! 

Nicole & Lee, Boynton Beach, Florida
Nicole & Lee, Boynton Beach, Florida

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