Seven-hundred-sixty-miles separate the white sandy beaches of Miami and the rolling mountains of Henderson County. The Fernandez family has been traveling to Western North Carolina from southern Florida for 26 consecutive years. It’s one trip where the destination — not the journey — is truly what matters.
Jose and Kathee Fernandez first visited Western North Carolina with their children, Joe and Ana, in the mid-1980s. The lush forests and welcoming mountains offered reprieve from their busy lives in Miami managing a construction company responsible for a significant portion of south Florida’s roadways and airports.
“It’s a place where you can slow down, work on the land while listening to the birds sing, feel a cool breeze and just be at peace,” reflects Jose. “The outdoor recreational opportunities and interaction with a diverse landscape make it the best place for our family to connect and enjoy together.”
Inspired by the tranquility, scenic beauty and abundance of outdoor recreation, Jose and Kathee purchased a 149-acre farm near Edneyville in 1990. The land boasts creeks, ponds, oak and eastern hemlock forests and pastures where their horses graze. Wildlife seek refuge and thrive. The gentle, rolling hills and the deep woods provide endless opportunities to meander freely.
“We liked it the way it is,” says Jose, who knew he needed to conserve the land in order to preserve it. In 2009, they partnered with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy to permanently protect 136 acres of the property. “We didn’t want to ever see it divided and developed,” Jose adds.
Returning to their Western North Carolina home each year has become a tradition for the family, one that is now being passed down to Jose and Kathee’s grandchildren.
Each summer and most holidays, their two children and their spouses, together with the four grandchildren, gather at Jose and Kathee’s mountain home. They gaze out the living room window at Bearwallow Mountain, crowned with a grassy meadow. At 4,232 feet, it’s the highest peak in the widely-visible Bearwallow Highlands range. They hike and ride bikes together on trails that wind through rhododendron, maple and pine, stopping to examine acorns, mushrooms and caterpillars along the way. They eat lunch atop mountain summits, taking in sweeping views of the mist slowly drifting up from the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“My first child was born six years ago and it’s important to me that both of my children have summers at the farm as part of their childhood,” shares Ana. “Our kids learn just as much exploring these trails, creeks and mountains as they do sitting in a classroom. It’s also a haven for our family. We connect here and spend quality time as a family, despite the distance between us where we live.”
Ana and Daniel’s children, Eric, 6, and Sofia, 5, race up the Bearwallow trail, climb on moss-covered rocks and are inquisitive about the plants and insects around them. At the top, they giggle as a grazing herd of cattle greets them — an experience they wouldn’t find among the swaying palms of Miami.
Ana's brother Joe, his wife Becky, and their children Alina, 5, and Joseph, 3, join them. “The four of us now live in central California, but this place captures your heart no matter where you reside,” says Joe.
The family is attracted to the relaxed lifestyle, the warm people and the change of seasons iconic to Appalachia. They understand our natural resources are precious and limited.
“Our family has been able to grow up enjoying the open space and beauty of the area,” Ana says. “We feel strongly that places like this need to be protected and conserved so that our children and their children can have the same experience and appreciation that we enjoy. There is something very special for children and adults alike when we have access to unadulterated nature and beauty. The lesson of caring for our natural spaces started with my parents, and my children are getting a front seat to how we do that in practice.”
Conservation is a passion for the family. Jose and Kathee started a charitable family foundation that has environmental issues as a key focus. “We want to contribute, as best we can, to the betterment of the environment and society in our local communities,” says Jose. “Our goal, as a foundation, is to help create a more sustainable place to live. Part of how we do that is through environmental conservation and advocacy. The land in Western North Carolina is a perfect place for us to do this work, where we can support the area that is so special to our family.”
The foundation has generously enabled the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy to save invaluable lands and waters in the Hickory Nut Gorge and surrounding region, allowing people from all walks of life to take a break from the hustle and bustle and enjoy the meandering trails, panoramic views and peaceful escape that these natural treasures provide.
“The foundation is a beautiful way for us to keep common threads through our family,” says Ana, who now serves as the foundation's executive director. “In spite of our busy and different lives, we come together to work for good.”
“Connection to the land is essential for human well-being,” shares Jose. He smiles as he describes the way his grandchildren’s eyes light up, mirroring the same excitement his children had uncovering the marvels of these mountains. The tradition of coming together as a family each year to share the simple joys of the land flourishes as a love for nature shines in the next generation.
“Our family loves the open space, the slower pace and the adventure lurking around each corner. We love the balance it gives us to our lives in Miami,” says Ana. “It just feels good here.”