Words and images by Kelsey Oates
Maritime hammocks, with large Spanish moss-draped live oaks, create a canopy of shade as little bursts of sunshine poke through the branches.
The natural wildlife that inhabits this coastal grassland begin to emerge from their slumber, while calming sounds from the surrounding waters float through the air.
“I remember being so nervous, but calm at the same time,” Kimberly Layton says about that morning walk with a group of people she hadn’t ever met. “Nervous because I was about to meet people I had never met before, but calm because I already felt like I knew them.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Layton, who was new to Jacksonville at the time, had connected with the group through the online social group www.meetup.com. She had been anxious to meet groups of individuals who not only shared her love for exploring, but were also new to the area.
After all, it’s 2016 and that means technology and the World Wide Web have taken precedence in almost every aspect of today’s society. The online site Layton used lets individuals attend or create local meet-up groups that are based purely around shared hobbies, careers and business networking.
“I was a little skeptical at first,” Layton admits, “because yes, I like to explore, but I am not into rigorous hiking or intense outdoor activities, which is why having so many groups to choose from is really cool.”
By selecting the travel meet-up section on the site, Layton was able to choose events that varied from a blissful three-mile hike at Fort Clinch to a 20-mile hike through Okefenokee Wild Refuge Park. There are even options for family events such as a luncheon at Hannah Park or a trip to the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine for the kids.
Meet-ups are attended by all types of people. Most either want to add some new blood to their social circle or have recently moved to the area. Depending on what your interest, there are dozens of meet-up groups composed of people who share the same passion towards similar activities.
Those interests can include everything from meeting other singles to travel.
“It’s cool because I use the Internet every day,” Layton says, “but I never thought to use it to change my life by creating new relationships with people who I would never meet without the site.”
Layton recently moved to the Jacksonville area after landing a new job that required her to relocate. Her love for traveling and exploring new places made the move easy, however the unfamiliarity and loneliness of her newfound home quickly consumed her.
“My boss at work actually told me about the site,” Layton says, “after she was tired of me complaining that I had no one to explore this amazing city with for the hundredth time.”
With one easy click and her new zip code, Layton entered a world where she met hundreds of locals that gave her a chance to mingle with fellow adventure seekers and share stories with one another.
Sidetrackers, a popular adventure group found on the site, is an outdoor activities club that caters to the single people in Jacksonville and Northeast Florida. For 15 years the group has provided outside activities for singles such as camping, kayaking, zip lines and hang gliding.
Another well-known group on the site is Jacksonville Travel and New Language Meet-up. Unlike Sidetrackers, this group emphasizes on helping individuals who may not be accustomed to other languages and emphasizes events for families, rather than singles.
“I’ve always loved traveling,” founder of the group Edward Martin says, “so why not find more people who like the same thing as me.”
Martin has lived in Florida his whole life and says that Jacksonville has been his home for the better half of it. He is a family man and the lead organizer for the Jacksonville travel group since 2014 and has since then made numerous relationships and countless memories with the members of the group.
“My life was pretty constant growing up,” Martin states, “but since Jacksonville is home to a military base, my friends were always moving away.”
The perpetual pattern of new friends coming and going throughout his life made Martin want to reach out and offer a helping hand for new residents that might feel overwhelmed or isolated in their new surroundings.
“Everyone knows that moving to a new city can be scary, but it gives me comfort knowing the website offers a service that actually makes a difference and brings people together.”
Martin, and the hundreds of other organization founders, plan unique events and gatherings for members to attend. At the most recent meet-up for the Jacksonville Travel and New Language Meet-up group, the members decided on a local getaway as well as international trips that they would like to take.
The group finalized its weekend getaway and will be taking a day trip to Blue Mountain State Park where they will be able to take pictures with the manatees and hand pick fresh fruits such as strawberries and blueberries. The group then went a step further and started to plan a trip to Germany during the month of August for members that are seeking an international trip.
“It’s strange ya know,” Martin chuckles. “I used to think the Internet was a decoy for kids to stay inside and not enjoy what the outside world had to offer… But now that same Internet is the reason for all my new travel adventures.”