Horsetooth Rock, Fort Collins

View along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Mountain mahogany along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Closeup of mountain mahogany branch, Horsetooth Rock Trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

View toward Horsetooth Reservoir from Horsetooth Rock Trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

View toward Horsetooth Reservoir from Horsetooth Rock Trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Mica in soil along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

When we rolled into Larimer County, we arrived at the end of our planned route. Two long haul drives got us from Chicago to Omaha and then to Fort Collins where a friend had arranged for us to stay with her parents for a few days. That was as far as our itinerary went. We resisted planning every moment of our trip, every destination, every campground. We wanted to keep our options open, to be able to spend more time in a place, to change routes if something popped up, or if someone gave us a solid recommendation. Simply, we wanted to be able to set our own pace, which is really what we had been missing from our hectic daily lives back in Chicago.

We imagined the transition from daily-grind to choose-your-own-adventure would be a little bumpy, so the four days we spent in Fort Collins were a perfect launch pad. A vacation before the vacation. Briney olives and homemade daiquiris, dinners on the patio, boat rides on the lake, hot showers, soft carpets, and access to a superautomatic espresso machine. Our adopted parents couldn’t have been more gracious or welcoming. So when they recommended we spend our Saturday hiking Horsetooth Trail, that’s exactly what we did.

View toward mountains along Horsetooth Rock Trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

View back down toward the Horsetooth Rock trailhead, Colorado / Darker than Green

Rainbow grasshopper (Dactylotum bicolor) along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Along the Horsetooth Rock Trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Along the Horsetooth Rock Trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Musk thistle along Along the Horsetooth Rock Trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Aspen patch along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Closeup of Aspen leaves along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

The drive to the trailhead filled us with anticipation, up into the mountains and past Horsetooth Reservoir, which was buzzing with mid-summer activity. This would be our first hike of the trip. No weekend emails or private lessons or client deadlines. Just our packs, our map, and the trail.

The path took us up the foothills and through aspen groves and evergreen stands, past soft-leaved alpine natives and high desert pricklers. The change in elevation challenged our lungs and our legs. The unfiltered Colorado sun breathed heavily on our shoulders, and our midwestern bodies struggled against the rugged elements. But we pushed on. And the higher we climbed, and the rockier the trail became, the more determined we were to push up that final, exposed scramble.

At the top, we were treated to a rare view of the valley behind Horsetooth, a view only those who climb these same steps have seen, a view we felt privileged to experience. We braced ourselves against the winds and peered out over the edge.

View from top of Horsetooth Rock, Colorado / Darker than Green

View from top of Horsetooth Rock, Colorado / Darker than Green

Angled rocks at top of Horsetooth Rock, Colorado / Darker than Green

Black woman looking out onto valley from top of Horsetooth Rock, Colorado / Darker than Green

While meeting the other hikers who had also made it to the top of the rock, the afternoon clouds began to roll in. A few flickers of lightning pushed us back on our descent to the trailhead, down and around the mountain. Through meadows of grass swaying against the rocking breeze, along sandy pathways dotted with shimmering flakes of mica and flanked by mottled pink sandstone. I had to stop every few steps, not to catch my breath as I had done on the way up the mountain, but to let my eyes wander over each and every bit of the trail, at every part of its beauty. I let the gratitude wash over me.

Part of Horsetooth Rock peeking from behind mountain mahogany, Colorado / Darker than Green

Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Bare branches along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Hardened tree trunk along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Late summer plants along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

Horsetooth Rock trail marker, Colorado / Darker than Green

Field marigold along Horsetooth Rock trail, Colorado / Darker than Green

That evening, when we got back to the house, we looked out over the lake and spotted the telltale ridges of that scraggly smile – Horsetooth Rock. We looked at each other, amazed by what we’d just accomplished. When the parents got home and they asked us how our hike was, with wide eyes, we pointed across the lake.

“We were up there. We climbed that. It was incredible.”

View toward Horsetooth Rock across a lake in early evening, Fort Collins, Colorado / Darker than Green

Horsetooth Rock, Colorado / Darker than Green

Horsetooth Rock Trail is probably the most popular hike in the Fort Collins area. And for good reason – it’s visually stunning and physically demanding. The roundtrip hike took us close to five hours, though if you’re used to high altitude/elevation hiking, you can probably clock in a much shorter time. Bring lots of water (at the end of my two liter bladder, I still had about an hour left of hiking to go) and if you hike in summer, sunscreen and a hat are non-negotiable. The trail itself is very quiet, but try your best to get there early as the trailhead parking lot fills up quickly. Parking costs $6 per vehicle.



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Headed west

Corn farmland somewhere in Iowa / Darker than Green

In Iowa, we sped past infinite hills of corn, the parallel rows lining up with my passenger side window before massing together in the angled distance. The clouds glowed above, giant puffs of white cotton batting that held and shielded the sun. Rare roadside billboards approached slowly, advertising simply: “BEEF” and “Forgiveness.”

In Nebraska, the rolling hills sank and the land fell flat. We drove and drove, clear across the state, past red painted barns and abandoned homesteads, past turnoff towns with cheerful names like Wahoo and Friend, and of course, past more corn.

Lone birds swooped low over the two lane road. A bright yellow prop plane turned circles in the air. The asphalt glittered a watery mirage at the horizon. We were finally headed west.

Farmland and open sky somewhere in Iowa / Darker than Green

I haven’t taken many road trips.

As a child, my mom and I would occasionally drive north from Los Angeles to Oakland to visit my sister. On those trips, we’d memorize the names of the small towns along the way – Coalinga, Santa Nella, Los Banos, Tracy — and sang Al Green out loud to pass time between the windmills and the cattle farms. These trips weren’t long, but they made an impression. They taught me to love the blur of the crops on either side of the car, the reflection of the afternoon sun on the dashboard, the lulls and the laughter.

This past spring, my boyfriend and I took a trip downstate, and it whet our appetite for longer adventures. A passing wonder for the summer – what if we roadtripped and camped across Colorado? — turned into a goal. And fast forward to July, that goal became an actual plan. We’d arranged our schedules and crunched through our task lists until there was nothing left to do but go. So that’s what we did.

One hour became four, four stretched out to eight, and eight turned into sixteen. The cruise control got dialed in and the long haul truckers shrank to toy car size in our rear view mirror. After two days of driving through the plains, finally spotting the mountains that hug the western edge of Fort Collins felt like finding an oasis in the desert. Beside the highway, waist high sunflowers sprang up from the dusty soil – proof that we had arrived in Colorado.

The engine pushed on, and we held onto every radio station for as long as we could before it faded into the haze. We had made it out west, and there was still so much farther to go.

Sun shining through the clouds onto the open road / Darker than Green


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Leaving no trace in the city

Rainbow sky over the Chicago skyline from 90/94 / Darker than Green

The Leave No Trace principles are the gold standard for how to behave in the backcountry. Adhering to them when we’re outdoors is a must, a non-negotiable, as the responsibility for maintaining public lands is our own. But what about when we’re not in the backcountry? What about when we’re on our own street, in our own neighborhood, in the cities and towns we actually call home?

I wrote about my experience incorporating the LNT principles into my daily life in Chicago for Issue 9 of RANGE Magazine: Leaving No Trace in the City: Seven Principles for Considered Living in any Environment. If you’ve read my work before, you know that I care as deeply for urban environments as I do for epic postcard vistas and national parks. This essay shares some reminders for how to treat our cities with the same kindness and reverence that we give to those wild natural spaces.


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Huntington Library & Botanical Gardens

Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Tall cactus with tree in background, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Aeoniums in the sunlight, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Succulent closeup, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Twisted cactus, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Adventure featured heavily in my early years growing up in Los Angeles. My mom probably wouldn’t describe it that way, but that’s the way I experienced it. I’m the youngest of three daughters, and we’re all so significantly spaced apart in age that by the time my middle sister went away to college, I still had several years left at home. My mom and I became adventure partners. We tried every type of cuisine, we took long walks through museums and sat through marathon theatre performances, we drove great distances to faraway festivals and gatherings. The city was our playground, and we took every advantage of it.

This elaborate itinerary building wasn’t, to my knowledge, part of any grand child-rearing scheme. As far as I know, my mom never set out to make me an artist, or a lover of the arts, or a foodie, or a traveler. She just took me along with her to experience things she was interested in. And luckily for both of us, they became things I was interested in, too. All the seeds she planted took root eagerly, and my personality and my own interests began to form and flourish. It may be no surprise to hear that I became an artist, and a lover of the arts, and a foodie, and a traveler, and many, many other things that resonate with her influence.

Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Small succulents, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Tall cacti, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Giant floss silk tree, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Cactus patch in the shade, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Closeup of cactus spines, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

When I went back to Los Angeles recently to help my mom celebrate her 70th birthday, I schemed to take her back to one of the places she’d introduced me to decades before. The Huntington Library is a historic mansion-turned-museum, and the hundred odd acres surrounding the mansion have been turned into a series of mind-bendingly beautiful gardens. The last time we went to the Huntington must have been decades ago, back when my mom still drove her little white Ford hatchback. This time around we were car-free, which means the trip was a lot longer, but also, that much more rewarding.

Closeup of swirling spiny cactus limbs, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Curved path among barrel cacti, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Tall, smooth cactus in dappled shade, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Multi-colored succulents, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Brightly colored agave closeup, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

We spent most of our day shuffling through the Desert Garden, which spreads and curves through 10 acres of spines, barbs, and branches. Places from childhood tend to feel smaller when revisited as an adult, but the Desert Garden felt exponentially bigger and even more impressive than I could have guessed. On a Monday afternoon, we had the garden mostly to ourselves, and the mockingbirds who screeched and chattered to each other from the tops of swaying, feathery yucca trees. With each turn of the path, the shapes and textures and colors blurred at the periphery, the dusty memories of walking these same trails years ago in perfect focus in the front of my mind. Our handful of hours at the Huntington reminded me of a lot, about where I’m from and the experiences that compounded to create the person I am today. But what stood out to me was the realization and the reminder that there’s no better company for a long, slow stroll among the plants than my mom.

Swirled agave closeup, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Silver dollar jade, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Thin spiny agave leaves, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Green and yellow variegated agave leaves, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Desert plant resting against shaded fence, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Cholla cactus fruiting, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Montrose cactus, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Shaded long leaves, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Cactus flower, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Agaves in black and white, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Center view of the path in the Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Jacaranda tree in bloom, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Monstera Deliciosa in the shade, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Garden plantings at the Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Sun-kissed agave spines, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

My mom gazing upon the Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

The Huntington is located in San Marino, CA, a mainly residential corner of Pasadena, which is a lovely city northeast of Los Angeles. If you’re traveling there on public transportation, make sure you bring a book…or two. From the westside of Los Angeles, our trip took over 2 hours. But! It was a lovely ride, and I continue to be amazed with how robust public transit has become in L.A. since I moved away. However, I do have one word to the wise for train trippers – you should spring for the Lyft when you arrive at Allen Station. It won’t cost too much, and you’ll want to save your walking energy for when you get to the Gardens. Avoid Tuesdays (they’re closed), tickets are less expensive on weekdays and free on the first Thursday of every month. My only other tip – have fun, and bring someone who loves adventures as much as you do. If that person is your mom, even better.



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Magic in the dark

We went down to the south side to meet him for dinner. Curried potatoes, peas, and paneer formed miniature mountains on our disposable plates. An army of little plastic cups huddled nearby, all filled with green chutney and tamarind sauce that was never quite spicy enough. After eating and talking, the three of us walked west and turned into Nichols Park where the crickets’ song outplayed the honking horns on 53rd Street. I marveled at how tall the trees has grown, and smiled when he told us he could never imagine living anywhere else in the city, that Hyde Park’s glut of green had set an unmatchable standard. The heavy curtain of dusk began to fall as I pointed out familiar plants in raised beds – the day’s light draining faster and faster, until in some corners, it got too dark to even tell the leaves apart. He stood back a ways, gazing out past the warm streetlights and the cool glow of the early evening moon. He stared directly into the densest part of the park, where the darkest greens had turned all the way to black.

Twilight through silhouetted trees, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Those that know me personally know that magic is one of my core values. I believe in it. Not necessarily because I’ve experienced it first hand (though I have), but because I don’t want to live in a world where magic isn’t possible. So I choose to believe. Some days the tricks feel clumsy and poorly executed, begging to be picked apart. Some days the leap of faith is impossible to clear, and I feel firmly tethered to the ground, by the weight of realism, pessimism, the gravitational pull. But even still, even knowing how challenging believing is, I work hard to rekindle the magic, to cut the ties that hold me down, and lift off.

At the end of last month, in an instant, I lost magic completely. The unexpected news: a good friend had suddenly died. A friend whose wit and generosity were unmatched. A friend who was gentle and sweet and weird and wonderful. A friend who shared love and was loved, fiercely, by so many. The shock of the news threw me outside of myself in a way I never could have imagined. The swirling cyclone of regular deadlines, errands, and need-to-do’s, slowed and eventually withered away. None of it mattered. My body felt stretched to its limit, bulging with the bulk of this new reality, struggling to contain the questions, and the tears.

The grief that followed — the psychological, emotional, and physical pain — was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It followed me everywhere and rushed over me in fickle intervals, flattening me without warning, wrapping me up in guilt and regret. Memories that would have made me smile days before now felt sharp or shapeless. My deep yearning for understanding pooled in my throat. But the answers never came.

As adults, we’re groomed to believe that facts are what matter and that everything has an explanation. So when we’re faced with a situation that is truly inexplicable, we prod and push at it, pounding it down into a more recognizable form. I thought about how often I’ve demanded answers, proof – how often I’ve felt entitled to clarity and certainty. How often I’ve focused on these bits of data instead of remembering that sometimes, often, there simply are no answers. In magic, it’s easy to shriek, “How’d you do that!?” or push aside the curtain and research the secret behind a trick. It’s not as easy to witness a mystery, and accept it just as it is. And I don’t know of any mystery more opaque, more complete, than death.

I have lost a friend. His partner has lost hers. His sister has lost her brother. His parents, their son. Magic can’t begin to ease that kind of pain. But over the past few weeks, I’ve discovered that learning to accept the unknown is its own sort of magic trick. Uncertainty bears a jagged edge, but on the other side, there’s a softness not felt or witnessed by many. There’s comfort in the darkness. There, we can let ourselves wonder wildly – our belief in what’s possible, ever-expanding. There, we can catch glimpses of what used to be, and who used to be there. Or who may be there still, floating among the shadows.

That night in Nichols Park, I foolishly thought I knew what the future held. Even as the evening grew dim, I fixated on the coming of the next day and the return of the sun. But now, I anticipate the arrival of that murky gradient on the horizon. I lean back and look up as the clouds retreat into deeper and deeper shadow, until finally, twilight drifts away, and I can wrap myself in the magic of the black night sky.


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Reading: Belonging

Belonging: A Culture of Place by bell hooks / Darker than Green

Daddy Jerry always tried to get his grandchildren to come out in the pitch dark “to learn the dark” – to learn its comforts and its solace. We can do that and learn to be comfortable in the darkness and beauty of our skin. No one can take that spirit of belonging away.

bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place, from chapter 18, Healing Talk



There are books that wrap you up in another person’s story, immersing you in their new and different world. And there are books that, like a freshly cleaned mirror, reflect your own experience right back at you. From the very first page of the first chapter, “Belonging: A Culture of Place” was my mirror.

Belonging has been a central pursuit in my life since childhood. I felt a connection with the earth from a young age, but felt kept apart from it for many reasons. Not owning a home, not owning any land, living at the whim of landlords and gatekeepers – I learned my place by learning what places were not and never would be mine. As a young adult, I left behind the city where I grew up and started to learn what my new place could be. I’m still on that journey. I’m still in search of the perfect place, the place that welcomes and holds me, the place that remembers with me, the place I can feel at home.

With “Belonging,” bell hooks is telling her story. It’s a non-linear narrative, a series of essays ranging skillfully in topic and tone, but throughout the book she builds her own path toward a fully realized sense of place. Generously, she brings the reader along as she ventures inward, deep into her memories and personal experiences of finding and losing her connection with the world around her. The thread of this book weaves through issues of race, of gender, of environmentalism and self sustenance, of legacy and family, of art and artisanship. hooks swivels effortlessly from autobiography to rich critical theory, and references a diverse group of texts in almost every chapter. Many of my favorite writers are quoted (eg, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker), as well as essayists and critics I was unfamiliar with, but who now have prominent spots on my reading list.

Throughout “Belonging”, you gain an increasingly deep and complex understanding of what the process of returning to oneself looks like. hooks takes us with her, back to Kentucky, the land where she was born, back to the physical places she knew as a young girl, to uncover the elements that together create a sense of belonging. She also introduces us to some of the historic and systemic barriers to belonging – segregation, unchecked capitalist society, white supremacy, and the well known, widely shared, but ultimately false narratives about who we are, the narratives told to us over and over again, both internally and externally.

The most powerful plea hooks makes is for black people to remember their agrarian roots, and to rediscover the ways of knowing that were once central to our personhood, but that we drifted from in the rush to align ourselves with dominant capitalist culture. hooks’s beautifully wrought cultural criticism helped make me aware of my place in that legacy, the legacy of black people being deeply connected to the land, the legacy of being country people, southern people, earth people – the power in maintaining that knowledge of self, and how being separated from that legacy and history is one of the great sources of our generational pain. In speaking about agrarian black folks, hooks asserts “it is my destiny, my fate to remember them, to be one of the voices telling their story.” Reading this book, I realized that my work rests on that same line. That bearing witness to the natural world the way I do brings me closer to the people we were, and to the people we can be.

While reading, I found myself constantly reminded of experiences and thoughts I’d had, fragments of ideas I myself had written, and realizations I’d never been aware of, all laid out before me in a dazzling quilt. hooks is a master of critical theory, and at times I had trouble keeping up with her arguments, but she’s also a master of the personal essay, and has written her life and the lives of her family members so vibrantly that I almost feel as if I know them intimately. Nearly every page of this book left me vocalizing, the generations of black women who live on inside me, acknowledging recognition of themselves and their green lives lived. Nearly every page begs to be quoted, nearly every sentiment needs to be read aloud to whoever will listen.

As soon as I finished “Belonging”, I wanted to pick it back up and start it all over again. I delayed returning my cherished copy to the library, avoiding the calendar like in the days leading up to taking a visiting loved one back to the airport. Reading this book was like an extended therapy session. I felt seen and known. I felt part of a community of thinkers and writers, artists and storytellers, creative and resourceful lovers of the land. With every turned page, I felt the comfort and relief you feel when you come home at the end of the day. I saw the map slowly appear before me, the invisible ink darkening on the page, marking the way toward finding the place I belong.

Buy on Indiebound / Buy on Amazon / Buy on Abe Books


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Finding Nature in the In-Between

Simone Martin-Newberry at Shawnee National Forest / Darker than Green

Earlier this month, Gale Straub, the wonderful woman behind She Explores, interviewed me for an episode of her podcast. The episode is now live and I’m so proud of it. Gale and I chat about all sorts of topics that are close to my heart: plants, seeking out nature in and outside of the city, my relationship with my master gardener mom, the importance of public land and acknowledging the history of the land, growth and discomfort, and moving through the world with eyes open.

Because I’m a practitioner of radical honesty, I’ll admit here that I was wildly nervous before the interview, terrified that I wouldn’t make sense, or wouldn’t sound smart enough. It took a couple gentle nudges from Gale before I even agreed to do it. But the lesson here is clear – fear isn’t a good enough reason to say no. Sharing my perspective via this podcast episode has been revelatory. And being able to connect with others based on our shared experiences has been tremendous.

Listen to my episode here: Episode 66: Finding Nature in the In-Between
And afterward, queue up your next listen: She Explores podcast


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Pirates Cove, Tennessee Valley

Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

I don’t often have the opportunity to go back to California, the state where I grew up and lived my first eighteen years. Flights are expensive, time off is scarce, and my wandering eye is always scanning the list of places I haven’t yet been. But my imagination and subconscious pull me back to the golden state often. Remembering the exact shade of firey orange I see from behind eyelids when my head is turned up to the wide, hot sun. Remembering the soft, rolling mountain ranges – cloaked in straw yellow in the fall, scrubby green in spring.

Grey skies above mountain beside Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

I had never been to the Marin Headlands before, but the sound of my shoes scuffing across gold gravel paths told a different story. The wide trail undulated beneath my legs, legs long retrained for the flat midwest, legs now unaccustomed to even minimal change in elevation. As the trail stretched out ahead of me, a long, winding ramp, it reminded me of what these legs are capable of. Of where these legs belong.

Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean along the Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Flora along the Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

When we started our hike at the Tennessee Valley trailhead, it was late morning and the gray sky felt heavy. But by the time we caught our first glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, the sun had broken through the cloudcover, reflecting scattered white waves across the bay. The vast ocean, almost unbelievable in scale, unfolded indefinitely toward the horizon. It’s taut shimmer was only broken by the hard diagonals of the headlands. The ridges of land inhaled and exhaled, the chaparral growing in surges of green, the sun pulsing in the veins of the plants’ thin, waxy leaves.

Stairs down toward Pirates Cove, Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Scramble back up from Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Detritus at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Bird perched on a boulder at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Rocks at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

The plunge to Pirates Cove began as stairs etched into the mountainside, and then quickly dissolved into a jumble of broken crag. Scrambling down to the beach, I held tight to each boulder, steadying myself against the earth before shuffling deeper toward the rocky surf. My legs shook involuntarily, already exhausted from the slow steady climb they’d endured, and now being thoroughly tested on the swift descent. But they carried me: past a trickling waterfall, spring runoff on its way to reuniting with the ocean; past native plants and opportunistic newcomers flowering just out of reach; past a mishmash of organic detritus, wooden bits washed up from a tumble in the sea; and finally, over the colony of smooth black stones that lined the curved, sandless cove.

Contrail in the sky behind the cliff at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Dudleya succulents at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Scrubby brush along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean from Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Rocky mountainside, Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean from the Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Climbing back up to the trail, back to the sandy path that flexed against the hillside and down into the main valley, I felt held in place. Like the roots of the coastal shrubs holding together the headlands’ rocky soil, like the heavy mountains of earth hugging and holding the edges of the sea, I felt the elements that make up this familiar ecosystem pull me back into it’s tight grasp. The native sedges reached out and tickled my ankles. The giant windswept cypress trees sheltered the trail, catching the first few drops of rain before they could even think to reach my head. I poured myself into the bowl of the Tennessee Valley and felt welcomed, at ease, like I had rediscovered a place that felt like home.

Tennessee Valley Trail marker, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean peeking through mountains along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Wild weeds along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Tiny people atop mountain along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Group hiking Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Getting to the Tennessee Valley trailhead isn’t easy if you don’t have a car, but if you’re able to find a ride or carpool, you’ll enjoy a scenic trip over either the Richmond Bridge (coming from the East Bay) or the Golden Gate Bridge (coming from San Francisco). It’s a good idea to plan your arrival for earlier in the day, as the trailhead parking lot fills up quickly. Once on the trail, you can choose from a few different hikes. The main trail that leads to the lovely Tennessee Valley Beach is flat and family-friendly. The trail for Pirates Cove is less so, but was a rewarding challenge. If the tide is low and you’ve planned wisely and packed a lunch, you’ll be able to find a quiet spot to eat overlooking the crashing waves. If you didn’t bring a meal and feel ravenous when your hike is finished, head to Tamalpie in Mill Valley for delicious thin crust pizza.



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Garden of the Gods Observation Trail, Shawnee National Forest

Juniper trunk in Shawnee National Forest / Darker than Green

Rainy path along Observation Trail, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

We drove west from Kentucky for a day trip to Shawnee National Forest. We’d been building plans to camp in the forest, but watched as the forecast turned colder and rainier. The drive down twisting state roads and up and over the hulking Shawneetown Bridge spit us out deep inside the forest. On either side of the car, canyon walls made of second growth pine were replaced with giant elbows and knees of rippling gray rock, pushing up higher and higher from the damp ground. We’d heard Garden of the Gods was the most popular place in the forest, but upon approaching the parking lot, there was only a smattering of cars. We started clockwise on the Observation Trail, the light rhythm of spring rain darkening the way. A bright opening in the trees beckoned us to come closer to the cliff’s edge, where we caught our first glimpse of the hoodoos.

Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Devil's Smokestack in Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

The beauty of Garden of the Gods is undeniable, even during a gloomy early spring afternoon. For many years, I remember thinking that beyond Chicago, Illinois was nothing but flat farmland. Then I visited Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Park, and I thought I’d seen the geologic limits of our state. To put it simply, I was wrong. My home, the place I’d lived for fifteen years, had surprised me again.

Fungus growing on downed tree trunk, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Flowering tree in spring with Garden of the Gods in background, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Juniper roots, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Walking among this timeworn wonder, it’s easy to imagine the Shawnee people who once lived here being acutely aware of the spirit of this area. The sandstone bluffs vibrate with history. The vast wilderness area just beyond the cliffs echo with memory. Even the forest’s smallest inhabitants — pebbles, mosses, and the twisting roots of elder junipers and cedars — radiate with life and awareness.

Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Rock formation, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Liesegang bands on rock formation, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Liesegang bands on rock formation, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

As we walked along the trail, leaning close to the jagged, jutting walls, we learned to read the stories written in stone. A rainbow of mosses and lichens clung to the light gray sandstone surfaces that escaped glacial wipeout 300 million years ago. Some stones wore sharp iron-based ridges known as liesegang bands, lending them the look of the grandest of canyons, only on an infinitesimal scale. Even the flagstone pathways, snaking around and through the mountains of rock, reverberated with their own history, whispering the names of the men who built these trailways in the forest’s nascent days.

Liesegang bands on rock formation, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Rainy path along Observation Trail, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Rainy trees in Shawnee National Forest / Darker than Green

Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

The longer we spent on the trail, the easier spotting faces in the stones became. Sleepy eyes, pointed noses, long lips shut tight. Were these the gods for whom the rock formations had been named? Or were the gods the invisible forces that once roamed this prehistoric playground? The name of the lookout suddenly took on multiple meanings. On the Observation Trail, our eyes aren’t the only pairs searching, peering. We, too, are being watched. Silently. Closely. Faithfully.

Rainy trees in Shawnee National Forest / Darker than Green

Standing on wet rock slabs, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Despite the interpretive plaques placed along the trail, at the end of the hike we left wanting more. We felt enchanted by all we’d experienced — the pastel palette, the twisting ancient evergreens, the distant hills receding into the soft haze. Over packed lunches, we imagined ourselves returning and camping in Shawnee, as we’d originally planned, and quietly looked ahead toward that misty future. While we careened out of the forest, back toward Kentucky, a giant bird of prey swooped across a break in the trees.

The gods had spoken. We’d be back.

Large bird of prey flying through canyon of pines on Garden of the Gods Rd, Shawnee National Forest / Darker than Green

Garden of the Gods Recreation Area is the most popular section of Shawnee National Forest, located at the very southern tip of Illinois. The Observation Trail is relatively short, but you can easily spend hours marveling at all the unique rock formations, sights you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the state. Because we visited on a rainy day, the trail was mostly quiet. If you’re in the area during peak months and you get nervous watching people hover dangerously close to the cliff edges, you might want to consider a different hike.



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Gompers Park

Twisted tree trunk in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

There was snow, and there was ice, and there were days where the icicles hung from every surface, growing longer hour after hour. And then it all disappeared. Slowly, at first, and then in a rush. The freeze unfrozen, puddles thawed, ground damp.

In my mind, February is gray, flat, shallow. The clouds impossibly thick, light and contrast muzzled for 28 straight days. But on this February day , I was proven wrong. The sun twinkled on islands of ice floating in murky ponds. Twin tree skeletons swayed overhead and deep in the underworld reflected in every sidewalk puddle.

The angles were sharp, the shapes were bold, and the colors crash-banged in winter’s quiet, gray echo chamber. Orange marcescent leaves, gold witch hazel blooms, bright green moss in tree trunk crevices, cranberry and chartreuse dogwood stems. The catkins rattled, and dead leaves rustled in the wind. The slosh of boot soles settled in fresh, wet mud. Hiding among the tangle of twigs, a mob of bright red cardinals perched and pecked at abandoned clusters of seeds.

By the end of our wander, my socks were soaked. My disdain for February, however, was drained and dry. And in its place, the hopeful smile recognized by spring only.

Tree reflections in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Marcescent tree in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Moss growing on bark in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Deciduous tree against the sky in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Leaf in ice in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Catkins in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Tree reflections in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Leaves in the pond in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Witch Hazel in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Yellow twig dogwood in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Mossy tree trunk in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Winter interest reflected in the pond in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Mossy tree trunks against a fence in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

The pond in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Winter tree in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

I’ve had my eye on Gompers Park for a while now, but finally had time to take a long walk around it.
The park is absolutely lovely in winter, and I can only imagine it getting better as the seasons change. The 39-acre park butts right up against the LaBagh Woods, and is a pathway for the north branch of the Chicago River. It’s very easy to get to on public transportation – the #92 Foster bus runs right through it.



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