Shadow Seasons, Best of Smokies Part Deux – Cades Cove

Cades Cove Bikers in Morning Mist

Cades Cove Great Smoky Mountains National Park

When I was a kid, Dad took our family ‘on patrol’ on Sundays. In a beat-up green Jeep, plastic windows zipped up or down, weather depending. My brother and I would complain and try to get out of the trip if we suspected it might involve long-winded visits on stuffy couches with relatives who we thought were ancient but most likely were about 10 years younger than we are now.

But if Dad wanted to drive off-road over craggy old stream beds with a fire tower as our destination, we were the first to snap our seat belts tight. We loved the bouncing, the wild feeling of discovering something new, going ‘off trail,’ red clay mud spattering the jeep tires. Wild.

I thought of Dad a few days ago, while ‘on patrol’ in Cades Cove (at a slower pace and not in a jeep) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He loved outdoors. Fall got him going. “That’s a hemlock leaf,” he’d say, picking up the leaf and showing us the spines. “The red one there in the path’s a maple.” Then he’d make us guess on our own, encourage us to remember them. All of which came in handy when I needed a leaf notebook for biology class. (Our teacher bestowed an ‘A’ on said notebook, but never returned my work. Saw it later in the principal’s office. Maybe the principal’s son got an ‘A’ too?).

When Dad drove our family car – a factory issue Checker Cab, 70s gold-flake painted with a vinyl black top – he’d always urge me to ‘get your head out of the book’ and enjoy the leaves. For a minute, I’d snap the book covers shut, lean back and let the leaves flood my face with shadows and light and green and red and gold, a stained glass kaleidoscope that dizzied my brain, spaced out my thoughts. Made me believe I could live in another world. Then I’d rebel, flick the book back open and delve into an imaginary land.

Something about fall and turning leaves and returning to East Tennessee drives me to sew sinews into the bones of  my past, stitch them to my future. While my Dad loved to find new trails, my mother’s side of the family embraced the recurring comfort of annual reunions in cabins with fireplaces and a full kitchen from which fierce chili-cooking contests would launch. Reunions in Townsend, the so-called ‘quiet’ side of the Smokies.

In honor of fond memories, I cajole my husband to go with me to Cades Cove. But we pick the wrong day – a day where cars choke the 11-mile one-way asphalt loop through the old cabin-studded farming community. Once we find the Abrams Falls trail head, we release held-in breath, relax, strike out with fresh faith on the 5-mile round-trip hike to the falls.

“See?” I ask him. “This is nice, right? Worth the Atlanta-like traffic, hmm?”

Once he hits the trail, his faces takes on the features of a 5-year-old and I see a camel-colored Boy Scout shirt wrap his torso. He’s at home. He’s thinking about what it would be like to hike the Appalachian Trail. We walk for a while, silent, listen for the water, a woodpecker, crunching stone underfoot.

The Abrams Falls hike will always belong to my cousins, the firsts, seconds, the once-removed, the thirds of the Vannoys. For years on the Saturday of the reunion – the last Saturday in October, usually about one week past peak leaf-peeping season – the grown-ups assigned the oldest cousin the task of leading a hike and getting us out of the cabins so they could sit and talk in peace. Or cook. Or whatever boring things they did while we were absent.

On this day, each time my boot strikes a root or lifts over a rock, ghosts of cousins’ former selves prowl ahead of me. Skinny kids, freckled faces, elbowing ahead, eager to be first. Calling out taunts. Pretending they’ll show how brave they are by plunging into midnight dark water cold as frost on summer’s last grass. (In October? None of them dared.) Today we’ll settle for watching other’s kids in the deep pool beneath the falls.

On our next trip, a few days later, we arrive early Saturday morning in the rare hours where the one-way loop’s closed to cars – starts at 7 and ends at 10 a.m. We unload our bikes, tuck water bottles into a backpack (I suggest hubby take the backpack). And I bike 11 miles without ‘walking’ my bike on the toughest hills. Like the tough Girl Scout I was.

So much fun we try it again on Wednesday morning, summer grass fog-swept, tree leaves dusky summer’s end green, a few days before September ends.

Later we discover it’s the last day of the season when the loop will belong only to walkers, bikers, wild turkeys, bears, hawks and deer. After that, the leaf-peepers invade.

Cades Cove calls us to remember the passing of seasons.

Vine on Cades Cove Log

Vine on Cades Cove Log

Barn to Barn

Barn to Barn

Rust on Painted Wagon

Rust on Painted Wagon

Shadow Wheels

Shadow Wheels

©Sybil McLain-Topel and, 2014, 2015, 2015, 2017. Unauthorized use or duplication of  material without written permission from Sybil McLain-Topel is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, however, please give full and clear credit to Sybil McLain-Topel and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Best View and Hike in the Smoky Mountains Part One

View from Clingman's Dome

View from Clingman’s Dome

Spiders spinning webs. Sybil spinning cover letters. It must be Fall.

Spider web in forest

Spiders in forest mist

Where’s this blogger been?

Writing (my book, not my blog). Hiking. Biking.

Cades Cove 2014 and other September photos 100Wrapping up writing gigs, searching for writing work disguised as a job with health benefits and writing blog posts for other professionals.

Back to hiking.

Last Saturday we tackled Clingman’s Dome.

Cades Cove 2014 and other September photos 128Stunning. Windy. Fun.

Cades Cove 2014 and other September photos 119Smoky Mountains festooned with fog, clouds as perfect as if posing center stage for a final bow, wildflowers out for a last waltz before frost.

Cades Cove 2014 and other September photos 159Enjoy the photos.

Cades Cove 2014 and other September photos 146At the end, please check out my curated list of websites with more info and pix. Fascinating stuff on the woolly adelgid, the cause of the spiked snags of naked Fraser fir tree trunks, other people’s photos and official park information.

Cades Cove 2014 and other September photos 137Please share the love with your comments and favorite hiking resources.

My list

One of my favorite photographers. Upon request she can provide aerial photos of the Smoky Mountains that are stunning:

Rachel Paul Photography

A book and more:

Great tips on hiking, a curated book list, blog focuses on the Smokies, Georgia, Florida, Alabama:

A robust, tourist-oriented site:

Official State Park site – Always check for weather alerts, road closures, seasonal closures and miscellaneous other events that might ruin a well-planned trip, like wild roves of juvenile male bears attacking random hikers (that was a joke). They travel alone, not in ‘roves.’ :

Some do’s and don’ts and research sites for people who find themselves easily snarled into a virtual vortex of cool things to know about the forest. It’s all about the bugs, not the pollution. It’s the woolly adelgids that kill Fraser firs.

Who knew? Don’t cart firewood from one place to another:

Because those bugs then go to new places:

Other Tennessee hiking areas hit by the woolly adelgid:

(Friends of Fall Creek Falls State Park)

(Friends of South Cumberland State Recreational Area)


©Sybil McLain-Topel and, 2014, 2015, 2015, 2017. Unauthorized use or duplication of material without written permission from Sybil McLain-Topel is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, however, please give full and clear credit to Sybil McLain-Topel and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Writing in the Mountains

Blue Hydrangea

Blue Hydrangea

I have been telling stories. On paper. Well, on a computer. Real stories. They take time. And solitude. Peaceful surroundings.


Skillets LES August 2014 2

Skillets, Lillian E Smith Center August 2014

And cornbread, crusty home baked cornbread, baked by John T., and shared with creatives, but only on Friday after the week’s work’s done.

Sunset woods walk.

Sunset woods walk.

Walks in the woods.

Old and new light.

Old and new light.

The ability to appreciate the old and incorporate the new.

And a quirky inside-out perspective.

Nothing common about the view from the Common Room.

Nothing common about the view from the Common Room.

Monday Poem: Seasons Between

Southbound Knoxville July 2014


Break free

Imagine new endings

Svelte middles

Reignited stars

Feel the flipped tummy sensation

Of toes off the runway

Let fall the jacket



Reality’s callous bump

Where head meets earth

Sinews of acceptance



Ferocious gravity


Crinkles thoughts into wisps of

Thin paper

Tucks them

Into stale dough

To be broken apart

And dreamt


©Sybil McLain-Topel and, 2013-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from Sybil McLain-Topel is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, however, please give full and clear credit to Sybil McLain-Topel and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Found Art

My family and social media followers want to know where we are, what we’re doing and where we’re going. We’ll let you know when we arrive. Most days, contentment sneaks up on me while I snap photos and wonder when I’ll ever have this kind of free time again. Before we left Santa Rosa Beach we discovered the Bayou Arts Center ‘north of 98,’ as the locals say. You could say art found us.


Found Art Detail Driftwood black and white Black and White art from 30A Songwriters Festival Found Art Bayou Arts Center Found Art Detail

Path to St. Francis Chapel. I’m sure there are snakes. But I’m curious.

Path to the garden Bayou Arts Center South Walton Beach Santa Rosa Beach

St. Francis Fishermen's Chapel Exterior View with Pines St. Francis Fishermen's Chapel Front Santa Rosa Beach Florida June 2014_2Prayers at the altar of shells and candles.

Fishermen's chapel altar 2014 Walton County enhanced horizontal over enhanced cropped again

Wildlife Refuge and Pet Cemetery, discovered. Pet Cemetery and Wildlife Refuge Santa Rosa Beach Pet Cemetery

A note and a prayer.


Saint Francis sign Walton County 2014

Lord My Boat St. Francis Chapel

Toward the beginning of June, right after graduation, we try to find a place to stay in Santa Rosa Beach after the condo buy falls through. Through a local who knows a guy, we talk to the guy in Germany who lives in Atlanta who agrees to rent us his place at a reasonable long-term rental price. Night of the living moth balls. In a misguided attempt to ward off mildew, the owner has inserted moth balls into the HVAC units and left the place closed up for three months. Nothing we do removes or airs out the smell. We admit defeat and drive to a Best Western in Defuniak Springs. Highlights of Defuniak Springs include the state’s oldest still operational library and a perfectly round lake.

Oldest library in Florida

Oldest library in Florida

Brief History.

Perfectly Round Lake.

That Monday, we say good-bye for now to Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, pack what’s not in storage in Atlanta into the car and head for new adventure in Key West.


Annie and Louie Review: Top 5 Santa Rosa Beach Restaurants

Salads, wraps, burgers.

Salads, wraps, burgers.

Reviewed restaurants can be found in Santa Rosa Beach, Seagrove Beach, Grayton Beach, Seaside, Northwest Florida, Emerald Coast, South Walton Beaches, SoWal Beaches, 30-A, Florida panhandle, Watercolor, Watersound, Rosemary Beach, Seacrest Beach.

No matter what you call your favorite part of it, this stretch of beach ranks in the top five in the world. The sugar-white squeaky-clean sand, the mystical dune lakes, the walkable neighborhoods and wide variety of eco-adventures draw repeat visitors back every season.

Annie and Louie don’t pretend to be sophisticated reviewers. They just know what they like. They like fresh food that tastes good with a little creativity thrown in every once in a while. And sometimes some Southern home-cooking that’s not so good for you, but tastes so good anyway. Here’s their take after spending five months sampling all Santa Rosa Beach had to offer.

Annie and Louie’s top 5 restaurants and more:

5) Cocoon’s. Go for breakfast – homemade biscuits with choice of eggs, bacon, sausage and cheese, cinnamon buns the size of three fists, slathered in icing. Favorite lunch sides include homemade potato salad, new potatoes cooked to just the right texture, large chunks of boiled eggs, celery, a toothy filling treat that tastes like Grandma made it. This is your go-to place for home-style cooked Southern food and take-out. Casual, deli-style counter. Perfect for families with children. The business also rents bikes and boards.

4) Hurricane Oyster Bar, also best oysters at happy hour and a favorite local hangout. Outdoor, covered seating with a view of a Monet water-lilied covered lake. Play ‘find the alligator’ while munching on peanuts in-between orders of oysters. He’s about three feet to four feet long, depending on who you ask. We named him Alex. Hurricane Bar in Grayton Beach favorites also include Creole-style authentic gumbo, savory burgers and great happy hour deals. Laid back, casual, perfect for after-the-beach.

3) Great Southern Cafe, best oysters at happy hour. Pair with delish Sauv Blanc. Pure sea heaven. Also one of the best breakfast/brunch spots. Arrive early. If there’s a wait, enjoy independent bookstore SunDog Books or check out the Mercantile nearby, which sports top-selling t-shirt, “I’m the Trophy Husband” as well as high-quality, high-fashion button down shirts for men and adorable beachwear for women. With kids? Try nearby Duckies for pre-dinner shopping.

2) Wine World, best cheese tray we’ve ever enjoyed. Plenty to share, French-styled cheese served at room temperature as it should be, half-price carafe specials, knowledgeable barkeeps and dining al fresco. An easy bike ride from most places in Watercolor, Seaside, Grayton Beach or Seagrove Beach.

1) Café 30-A, time and again this restaurant delivers, whether it’s steak, gourmet soups, pizza or seafood. Known for $5 martini nights Tuesdays and Thursdays and two-for-one entrees every day 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. In high season, arrive early. Valet parking – it’s just easier.

1) Café Tango. Yes, a tie for top restaurant. Make reservations because this spot is intimate and tiny – a converted cottage. Café Tango serves up world-class grilled and baked fish with exquisite sauces and impeccable service.  This is what the French call “le repas de vacances,” or the “most special meal of the vacation.” Children would be bored here, so beg the grandparents to babysit or plan accordingly. Parking’s plentiful.

Annie and Louie’s Next Top 5 in Santa Rosa Beach:

5) Crush in Seaside. Friendly barkeeps, wide selection of wines, great happy hour deal. Crush also serves sushi, which was inconsistent during the past five months, but the wine’s worth the trip. Locals hint – jazz playing at Seaside? Arrive early at Crush and enjoy a seat and music.

5) Red Bar. Who doesn’t like the hippy vibe of Grayton Beach where Red Bar reigns? Ask barkeep Georgie, originally from Costa Rica, about her margaritas for locals – they will kick your butt. Jazz some nights, check the schedule. If Dread Clampitt’s playing, arrive early. Francophile’s will love the walls and ceilings plastered with old movie posters in French. Owners came from Belgium. Parking limited and challenging at times. Same menu for the last 10 years. Copious sized servings. The restaurant side’s okay for children early in the evening. The bar side, not so much.

4) Take-home ceviche from Goatfeathers. With lime Dorito chips, spiked with choice of hot sauce. Divine. Goatfeathers also steams shrimp and offers an excellent selection of fresh fish. Two locations – Seagrove Beach and Blue Mountain Beach.

4) Chanticleers for lunch. Tucked back into a nook in Grayton Beach, this one’s worth finding. Outdoor and indoor dining. Deli-style sandwiches, large variety of salads including an antipasto salad that’s plenty for two people. The owner’s charming and chatty. He launched this business after a dare from his students.

3) Cowgirl Kitchen in Rosemary Beach. Excellent omelets. Limited seating. Plan to park in the central lot and walk a few blocks. Kid-friendly.

2) The Perfect Pig. Don’t let the name fool you. This restaurant features plenty of healthy choices along with the pork. Indoor and outdoor dining, fit-for-foodie salads, brunch and breakfast egg dishes, as well as pork every way you can imagine – smoked, pulled, etc. Large  parking lot out back and kid-friendly. An easy bike ride from many locations.

1) Flip Flops Grill. Best burgers on the beach. Spicy, fresh chipotle chicken wraps, salads and more. This owner keeps the place immaculately clean. Hip vibe with flip flop décor in appropriate amounts that would make Goldilocks happy – just right. Perfect for kids. Indoor and outdoor dining. Very casual. Right next to The Perfect Pig. (Kids can get a burger; Mom can get a salad at The Perfect Pig – they share outdoor seating.)

1) Seagrove Village Market Cafe. Traditional favorite. Arrive. Park. Leave luggage in the car. Locals know – this is the best place for a grouper sandwich or fish tacos. For the best seats and hottest tacos, arrive as early as possible – 11 or 11:15. This place doesn’t look like a restaurant. Enter the souvenir-styled store and head straight back to the order counter on the right. Indoor seating and outdoor seating. Don’t expect to linger, it’s a turn-the-tables kind of place that satisfies the craving for fresh seafood on a bun.

Best place on the beach for sunset: Grayton Beach, where one of the freshwater dune lakes spills into the Gulf, creating double reflections, a perfect place for kids to play in shallow water. Locals can drive on the beach with the appropriate sticker, so don’t be surprised if part of the beach looks like the tailgate at a ball game. What’s cool about Grayton Beach – the pristine view into Grayton Beach State Park, where no homes or high rises destroy the view, herons fish and dunes are protected.

Best local website with local forum: Great for finding long-term rentals (better than Craig’slist) and overall information about the area. The owners are super nice and knowledgeable.

Best coffee house: Amavida.

Also worth a mention are the solid lunch deals found at Pizza by the Sea in Watercolor, next to the Publix, Bruno’s Pizza in Watersound and the smoked chicken salad sandwich found in the heart of Seaside from one of the Airstream trailer food trucks.  Angelina’s, a family-run restaurant for more than 20 years, prepared a delightful pasta with asparagus and alfredo sauce and also features pizzas and traditional spaghetti.

Bookstores: Sundog Books in Seaside and The Hidden Lantern in Rosemary Beach.

Also good to know:  no happy hour specials at Bud and Alley’s, but perfect for sunset. The restaurant food is pricey because it’s one of the few restaurants with a beach view. La Cocina Mexican restaurant in Rosemary Beach is worth the drive, no matter where you’re staying. In Rosemary Beach, Havana Club in The Pearl Hotel features a swanky bar and dressed-up dining atmosphere. Annie and Louie often didn’t meet the dress code for V or Vue so we skipped those.  Borago’s upscale Italian fare rates high and Joy, the barkeep, makes a mean martini. In the winter, one night when the bridge froze over, Borago’s was one of the few open and we were happy to find it. Basmati’s features reasonably priced Asian-styled lunches and excellent service. Whiskey Bravo features rooftop seating with a partial view of the ocean and a view of several-story homes under construction. Friendly service and happy hour prices on wine and beer. No children permitted on the roof. Indoor and outdoor dining.

Please feel free to add your own favorites in our comments section. If your restaurant was not reviewed we either did not visit or we were too nice to say anything. We would be happy to review any new restaurants that opened since May 2014.

UPDATE: We meant to include #hibiscuscafe in Grayton Beach and #summerkitchen in Rosemary Beach. Also excellent dining choices. Great burger and creative evening fare at Summer Kitchen. Hibiscus Cafe serves a delightful Sunday brunch, which we enjoyed on Easter Sunday while listening to Cody Copeland. If Cody Copeland’s playing while you’re in the area, go listen. He’s talented, a real find. And that’s from a picky listener with Nashville roots.

Addresses or websites where available:

Cody Copeland

Hibiscus Cafe

Summer Kitchen

Cafe Tango

Cafe 30-A

Wine World in Watercolor

Great Southern Cafe in Seaside

Hurricane Bar in Grayton Beach

Coccon’s – 4101 E County Highway 30A, Santa Rosa Beach, FL

Seagrove Village MarketCafe

Flip Flops Grill

The Perfect Pig 30A

Cowgirl Kitchen in Rosemary Beach

Chanticleer Eatery


Red Bar

©Sybil McLain-Topel and, 2014, 2015, 2015, 2017. Unauthorized use or duplication of material without written permission from Sybil McLain-Topel is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, however, please give full and clear credit to Sybil McLain-Topel and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

So You Want to YOLO Board, SUP with that?

Mimi and Marci Key West YOLO SUP_2SUP? YOLO?

SUP and YOLO are not texting slang – they stand for trendy ways to scoot across the water on a surf-style board while burning maximum calories.

SUP simply stands for Stand-Up Paddleboard and YOLO for You Only Live Once, which confuses people so even YOLO Board founder Tom Losee calls the sport SUP.

For as many years as stand-up paddle boarder enthusiasts scooped their way across dark-water dune lakes near Grayton Beach in Northwest Florida, I have yearned to YOLO board. On many trips to the area, I’d cycle the path next to the main beach road, 30-A. Bike flying like a kid, I’d cruise past Western Lake on the edge of Watercolor, east of Grayton Beach, my favorite hangout. Looking out toward the Gulf of Mexico, high dunes tufted with sea oats and vines separate the lake from the Gulf. A thin line of pines with blossomed tops and skinny dark trunks embroiders shadows on the skyline and promises the smell of sunscreen, saltwater and sweat.

The sight of the spindly trunks silhouetted black against the sky signals a slower pace, a time to reflect. Shoulders un-crunch. Cells phones magically find the off button. Senses re-engage with the mystery of the freshwater/saltwater estuaries formed by the merging of dune lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. A beach anywhere can relax, but the dune lakes make this area unique both for recreation and biodiversity.

Western Lake tucks inland, flows under the two-lane road deep into Watercolor subdivision, where the houses start at well above $500,000.

One night a few months into our temporary relocation to the area, I discovered an open-sidewalk fund-raiser featuring a silent auction. A YOLO board lesson for two remained unbid upon, which I instantly changed. My phone rang the next morning and a deep-voiced woman on the other end explained where I could bring my cash or check. I’d won two YOLO board rentals, which I mistakenly thought came with lessons.

Lessons turned out to be more like 5 minutes of instruction, a wave of the hand and a call of “good luck” from good-looking young Brodie at the dock in the Watercolor ‘subdivision,’ where water lilies smother the edges of the blue-black lake like Monet paintings gone wild.

Before we left our place to head over to the Boathouse at Watercolor, I debated removing my make-up – especially the non-waterproof black mascara I’d applied that morning before work – before embarking on this adventure. I left it on. After all, if make-up and fire-breathing costumes were good enough for the lead actress in The Hunger Games, then make-up would work for me too. (Maybe I wouldn’t fall in; maybe I was tempting fate.) Besides, the end of April after a run of spring breaks end remains one of those times when locals reclaim the roads and beaches. In Northwest Florida the tourist season barely fills four full months, now and then dipping into May and October, trendily called the “shoulder seasons.” We might not encounter any high-strung competitive social-climbing fashionista tourists on the lake. The tennis court, maybe, but not the lakes. On the way to work that morning, I’d noticed that Highway 30-A which runs parallel to the beach for 17 miles, remained the provenance of local license plates. No traffic jams. I felt relatively safe venturing out in my shorts, baring pale-skinned cubicle-trapped legs, and a red and black Speedo one-piece circa 8 years ago.

I am not athletically gifted. My husband, Chris, was as curious as me to try out the gentle paddle sport and I was confident he wouldn’t fall off his but I felt no such confidence in my skills. I love to snow ski, which is where Chris and I met. In fact, we bonded after a wicked flip and fall on my part and an emergency trip to the medics. Hence, my track record with gravity-defying stability exercise: Gravity 5, Me: zed.

Then too, 19 months of studying, writing, sitting in class hardly served as preparation for the ‘core workout’ and stability-challenging stories I’d read about YOLO boarding. Still, I wanted to try before we moved away. My brain seized with a case of FOMO or ‘Fear of Missing Out.’ (I’ve suffered from this malady all my life, since middle school and felt instant relief once the disease was gifted with both a name and an acronym. I feel so chic now that I suffer from a disease common to millions of digital natives, snapping selfies and roaming from event to event.)

We arrive. Three vehicles grace the parking lot, a delivery truck awash in retro-styled YOLO boarder images, a mini-Cooper with a Walton County, Florida, license plate and another non-descript get-to-work car. Perfect.

My 6-foot-3-inch-tall half-marathon running husband bounds out of the car, down the sidewalk and disappears.  Into the fake rustic boathouse, elegantly appointed with a boudoir chaise swing hanging from the ceiling, the last thing one might expect in a place dubbed a ‘Boathouse.’  No night-crawler smell, no captive-cricket chirping, no tobacco-stained floors marred the aura of this interior. Decorators had trod the faux-weathered floorboards.

Inside the high-ceilinged REI-styled boathouse, Losee gave us choices. I might want to try the YOLO Yak, he suggested, a wider-bodied, heavier board that tended to tip less. Decisions. Decisions. The Yak would move slower across the choppy waves than the regular YOLO board Mr. Atlas selected. Mr. Atlas would slide and sail and I’d be stuck digging in trying to move a barge-like board. I wavered between FOMO and FOFOMA (fear of falling on my @$$).

FOFOMA won. We meandered down to the dock, shedding car keys, clothes and flip-flops.

My wide-bodied YAK glowed neon green, a bit scuffed. Brodie showed me how to position myself in a seated position on the dock, feet on the board, then turn into the board, plopping the weight of my upper torso onto my knees in the middle of the board, balanced.

Success! Now for the scooping oar, which he handed me and pushed me off the dock. Sweetie had already scooped his way toward the bridge, off his knees quickly. He strode the waters, scooping left, scooping right, gliding along. Kind of like a Hawaii islander, bronzed, athletic and fearless. I scooped left and right on my knees until I reached the arched pedestrian and bicycle bridge about 200 yards from the disembarkment dock, pale, out-of-shape and nervous.

The sun shone still, but we knew storms headed our way had spawned tornadoes that had killed nearly 20 people in states west of us, including Alabama and Mississippi.

Water chipped and chopped under the bluster of a firm headwind. Brodie and Tom warned us to start with the wind in our faces to determine our strength and ability to steer. That way, when we returned to the dock, the wind would use our backs like sails. Sage advice, but really I wanted to scoop toward the Western Lake skyline of pines – in the opposite direction to see that iconic view from the water.

The key to remaining balanced includes a slight bend of the knees and not leaning into the oar while stroking. When in doubt, drop to the knees with the oar balanced over the center of the board. After about 45 minutes I worked up my nerve to switch to the lighter board, which felt like going from shorter skis to longer skis – the board felt more responsive under my toes and skimmed the water faster.

Chris commented on how much of a lower leg workout he felt, something he hadn’t expected and two days later I wasn’t as sore as I expected to be. Mascara intact, I declare the adventure a success. I would definitely SUP or YOLO board again but it won’t be here, it’ll be further south.

The day after our SUP boarding experience, three days of non-stop rain and gusting high winds struck. Hundreds of homes flooded, roads closed and businesses shuttered. The state-of-emergency weather brought with it as well news of the demise of a real-estate deal that would have put us in a small one-bedroom condo a block off the beach. The sellers refused to make an HOA-required repair, which meant we could not close, although we had waited patiently for nearly 60 days. Our deal sank and with it our dreams of staying.

I’ve always loved this area, but there’s a dark undertow no talks about – a polarized economy with haves and have-nots and nothing in the middle. While hard-core locals intrinsically understand this and accept it, it took us several months to admit defeat.

Chris and I had secured what locals call “our service jobs,” one seasonal that didn’t pay much, the other part-time with healthcare benefits, a job that would have given me time to write. On the Florida panhandle, choices come down to skimming along on a sleek YOLO board of business ownership or fighting the waves on a YAK-sized job that pays $10 to $12 an hour. It’s impossible to make a new start here without a trust fund or the means to buy a business – and my loving parents sacrificed much for me and my brother, but a trust fund was never part of the deal.

They YOLO board in Key West, and that’s where you’ll find us. Except on Sundays.

On Sundays, you’ll find us skimming across the surface of Caribbean colored-waters even in December. Because the weather’s warm enough and we might as well SUP it up while we can.


©Sybil McLain-Topel and, 2014-2017. Unauthorized use or duplication of  material without written permission from Sybil McLain-Topel is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, however, please give full and clear credit to Sybil McLain-Topel and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.






You’re Welcome and Thank You

thank “Could you give me your name?” the man on the phone asked.

“Sybil McLain-Topel,” I replied.

“No problem,” he said.

“Of course it’s not a problem,” I said. “It’s my name. Why would it be a problem?”

And that is the problem, of course. The proper response should be “Thank you.” Clean, simple, clear. What happened to the perfectly good and accurate phrase, “Thank you?”

If he hadn’t replied, “No problem,” he might have chosen “No worries.” To which I would have replied, “Worry’s a waste of time and why would I worry about my own name? I rather like it.”

Instead, I went on to point out to him that by saying ‘no problem,’ he’s repeating a negative. Repeating a negative’s not a smart tactic for call centers or sales people. A few moments into our conversation, which centered on an insurance provider trying to save their money by forcing me to use a mail-in prescription service, he thanked me for the observation on ‘no problem.’ Then he said it three more times before he hung up, shortly after he did the math and realized I was saving the insurance company and myself a nifty chunk of change by driving to a nearby retail pharmacy instead of using the mail-in service.

“You’re welcome, dude.”YOU

Author’s note: Apparently I am not the only person whose nerves grate like aluminum on back teeth when people use these phrases.



Author’s note again: Do you think the lyrics to this song might be different if “thank you” were replaced with “no problem”?





©Sybil McLain-Topel and, 2014-2017. Unauthorized use or duplication of  material without written permission from Sybil McLain-Topel is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, however, please give full and clear credit to Sybil McLain-Topel and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Jesmyn Ward: Men We Reaped


Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward

Please enjoy the PASTE magazine review.


My One and Only Night with the Leonard Boys (contact author for this post)

My One and Only Night with the Leonard Boys

Peter,  Sybil, Elmore 


Author’s note: The Leonards spoke as part of the Ivy Hall Writers series in Atlanta in January 2013. Elmore Leonard died at the age of 87 in August 2013.