Last weekend, I went down to Maryland to celebrate the wedding of two friends. The ceremony took place outside of Baltimore, fairly close to the airport, in a state park that felt worlds away. Between vows and white wine spritzers, rounds of cornhole and grilled veggie burgers, tears hidden behind sunglasses and bold belly laughs, we were able to sneak away and do a little exploring.
The overcast heat felt like summer, but the signs of early fall were creeping in. Crisped up bits of brown lined the walkways, and flutters of yellow drifted down from the tallest branches. Despite the passing of the autumn equinox, the entire park surged with energy. Giant slate boulders pushed through the earth. The Patapsco River churned slowly, feeding a bevy of lush, creekside plants. Unknown bird calls and freight train whistles echoed between the trees. We almost mistook a still, black snake for a petrified tree branch.
Inside the forest, along the Ridge Trail, the late afternoon light pooled in the thinning leaves. Fungus sprouted on fallen logs stretched out over pathways studded with rocks and roots. The elevation slowly began to rise, and being from the flat midwest, our unaccustomed feet struggled to maintain balance. Our special occasion footwear certainly didn’t help matters. But we pushed on.
At the farthest end of the Ridge Trail, we found Cascade Falls. The soft roar of rushing water reached our ears even in the parking lot, and after a short hike, we spotted the source. Beyond the rocky crag camouflaged with moss, behind the crowd of sun-shade trees, the white water splashed down into a shallow, gravely pool. Small groups of families climbed across the rocks to get a closer view of the falls, shutters clicked, voices carried clear through the soft, green valley.
As the sun began its descent below the tree line, we retraced our steps back to the trailhead and shuffled across the Swinging Bridge. A child’s heavy, joyful steps shook the bridge in its entirety – and I held onto the thick wound-wire railing to keep myself steady. At the center of the bridge, the valley dropped out below us and the view stopped us in our tracks. The wide river shimmered, mirroring the valley’s early evening light. Small groups of friends, families, fathers and sons, waded through the current below, their calls and shrieks lifting through the gaps in our wooden walkway.
Outside the park, reminders rang loud to make the most of the end of summer, to celebrate the long-awaited arrival of fall, to pull on those sweaters and dust off those boots. But here inside the park, time stood still. We all breathed the cooling air, and simply enjoyed what was.
Patapsco Valley State Park is one of the largest parks in Maryland, and sits about a 20 minute drive from downtown Baltimore. Driving is probably the easiest way to go, but you can definitely get there on public transportation, too. The 320 bus and the MARC Camden line both drop off close to the entrance to the park. No doubt that there are wonderful parks closer to the center of the city,
but if you’re in the mood for a getaway or camp-out, this may be your best, most beautiful bet.
We shook up our Labor Day tradition, choosing not to travel out to the suburbs to browse the Botanic Garden, and opting instead for a walk in the woods, right in the middle of the city.
Jackson Park sparkles. It’s the kind of park that astounds you with its sheer size, its diversity of plant life, the variety and depth of its tints and shades. You can watch your reflection in the slow-moving lagoons, the green-gray water swirling below weeping willows and mature pin oaks. You can travel through multiple ecosystems in a matter of minutes — tallgrass prairie at Bobolink Meadow, dense forest on Wooded Island — and end your wander among the traditional Japanese plantings and meandering paths of the Garden of the Phoenix.
It’s an exquisite park. But Jackson Park is on the south side of Chicago, which means that if you don’t also live on the south side, you might not even know the place exists.
People like to talk about the south side, everyone has an opinion, even people who’ve never actually been there. So many of these conversations are haunted by the specter of crime and dark terror, the area’s violent reputation hovering on their tongues. Rarely, if ever, do they mention the beauty of the south side, the pervasive greenness, the regular people who live, work, learn, picnic, or walk garden paths there.
“But, isn’t it unsafe?” Unsafe — a blanket term deployed to describe any area inhabited largely by people of color. When I first moved to Chicago, I lived a fifteen minute walk from Jackson Park. I strolled through its large drifts of yellow coneflowers, wild onion blossoms catching my ankles as I crunched along on freshly mulched trails. I lingered below the giant gnarled tree limbs, heavy with thick-veined leaves and quaking cottonwood pods. I walked the streets alone, at night. I was fine. Still am. The south side isn’t perfect (which neighborhood is?), but it’s where I first began to fall in love with Chicago. It’s where I first began to actively learn about this new city where I’d chosen to set roots.
Maybe you know some of the history. Our textbooks show us the south side of centuries ago gleaming bright white, the perfect neoclassical buildings of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition beckoning curious visitors from near and far. Popular historical fiction introduces us to unimaginable devils carrying out unconscionable murders, the crisp pages memorializing both victims and perpetrator. But today’s killings we hold at arm’s length, the circumstances too real, too dark, too ugly. Yesterday’s south side stands still in romantic sepia tones, while today’s south side pulsates, fully saturated in blacks and browns, fiscally ignored and harshly patrolled, misunderstood and antagonized on the global stage.
It is possible to appreciate a space without knowing its history. In many instances, it’s easier that way, easier to enjoy the uncomplicated beauty of nature, blinders up to the violence and injustice. But to ignore the truth, to ignore the context of Jackson Park and the area it inhabits, is careless. So I choose to see it all, the artifacts and lessons of the past, the challenges and solutions of the present, as well as the physical charm and natural grace.
Near the end of our day in Jackson Park, the clouds gathered above and summer’s last raindrops began to fall. Inside the tangle of Wooded Island, late season blooms shuddered beneath the rhythmic shower, coaxing out the thick scent of fallen leaves, perfumed seed pods, and deep, dark loam. As we walked, the sounds of the south side found our ears – the slow roar of car engines on Cornell Drive, the airy hiss of the double-long #6 bus, laughter and 70s soul drifting from an unshakable family’s holiday cookout. We trudged through spongy grass to get a closer look at the huge gold figure beckoning from the median, a relic from when the White City hugged the southern end of the park. 24 feet of gilded bronze, dripping with rain, boldly wearing the wounds of a century of exposure to the harshest elements. She stood, drenched and weathered, but still mesmerizing and triumphant. A magnetic force, impossible to ignore, beautiful, strange, perfect. Just like the south side of Chicago.
Jackson Park is located on the south side of Chicago, right along the shore of Lake Michigan. Despite what might feel like a great distance, it’s actually very easy to get there, even on public transportation. Leave from downtown on the scenic #6 bus, which runs express along the lake, or take the Metra Electric line, which is a little more expensive, but a smoother, quicker ride. Packing a picnic to enjoy in the park is always a great idea, but if you want to explore more of the Hyde Park area, Plein Air Cafe is a close walk away with multiple vegetarian and vegan options and great coffee. Plus it’s right next door to the world’s best bookstore. Go south!
We awoke before sunrise, eyes dreary and stomachs flipping. Night hadn’t brought me more than a handful of minutes of sleep — my conscious and subconscious juggling the unfamiliar sounds and smells, eyes registering, even from behind closed lids, the bright red numbers on an alarm clock that did not belong to me. We had already driven south from Illinois to Indiana, and now we were up early, our new destination farther south still: a small piece of public land just over the border to Kentucky. A sandstone bluff hovering above an old growth pine forest. A place to lay our blankets down, gulp trail-warmed water, and peel off our eclipse glasses at the precise moment of peak totality.
Before this year, I had never even heard the word. But in the months and weeks leading up to what was branded The Great American Eclipse, totality was on everybody’s tongue. We gobbled up every bit of content – lists, how-tos, longform essays, pinhole tutorials, super-spliced videos edited to perfection – all meant to clue us in to what we were about to experience. Day turning to night. A brilliant ring of sunlight in a suddenly dark sky. Bats flying, crickets chirping. Something weird, and wild, and beautiful.
The day of the eclipse, we packed the car under early morning’s damp blue haze, and then took off. Driveways turned to old state roads, parkways merged with interstate highways. Low-lying patches of fog were slowly burned away as the sun made its hot, red arrival. I wondered if the birds swirling in the sky, the small herds of grazing cattle, the sun itself, had any hint at what was coming, any hint at the cosmic display scheduled for later in the day. We spotted other rugged hatchbacks, roof racks packed tight, bumpers sprinkled with clever stickers, and interior cabins filled with eager-looking faces. The rest of the natural world might have been none the wiser, but we humans were beside ourselves. The road ran below our wheels as we traveled south over hill and bridge. Morning’s wispy clouds dissolved above us, opening the door for a perfect summer day. The viewing conditions were ideal. Anticipation grew.
On the way down, we passed a handful of open fields filling with SUVs and campers, other adventuresome folks staking out their spots, but when we made it to our destination, only a few clusters of cars sat huddled along the side of the gravel road. We stretched our legs and grabbed what provisions our arms could carry. After our densely wooded half mile hike to the edge of the bluff, the sky opened up above us. We stood at the edge of the sandstone outcrop, where sixty feet below, the tops of trees ran out for miles in every direction. We found ourselves a spot, pulled on our eyewear, and peered up at the sun. The eclipse had started. The sun was being eaten, a small chunk missing from its edge. A timid arc, almost unnoticeable, but we all saw. Camera phones were held behind protective plastic lenses. Photographers perched on cliff’s edge readied their setups, and soon enough the light began to change.
As we moved closer to totality, shadows deepened, colors grew more saturated. The world looked like an underexposed photograph whose details were hazy and indiscernible. I squinted to try and sharpen my gaze, reached to remove my sunglasses before I remembered I wasn’t wearing any. I felt my heartbeat speed up. The sun, which I had just seen with my own eyes, looked right at it for the first time in my life, was disappearing. A man nearby spotted Venus, bright as an airplane’s blinking lights in a moonless night sky. And then we were in it. The small crowd, all of us instinctively, cheered aloud as totality pulled into view. We briskly removed our glasses and gazed directly up at the sun’s glowing white corona. Cicadas began to scream, the colors of sunset brightened on the horizon, turning giant cumulus clouds pink, orange, and blue, even as the sun itself continued hiding directly above our heads.
From our vantage point in Western Kentucky, totality lasted two minutes and 36 seconds. The time felt longer, and infinitely shorter. To say it was a beautiful thing to witness is a vast understatement. As the tops of the farthest clouds began to turn back to fluffy white, the signal that daylight was on its way back, I felt full of wonder, joy, gratitude. To see a total eclipse is to see something equal parts extraordinary and completely ordinary. The sun and the moon cross each others’ paths multiple times a year, it’s not rare or remarkable. What’s remarkable about it is that we stop to take notice. There are billions of natural events happening around us every day — flowers blooming, clouds shifting, tides rising, winds eroding. It’s a total improbability that we’re here at all, that we have this planet to call home, that we can experience the very real cosmic activity happening around our planet. It’s incredible, and it’s something to be aware of and grateful for everyday, not just during a total solar eclipse.
It took us a while to muster the motivation to pack up and head back down the trail. I hesitated leaving behind the experience we’d just had, and the beautiful place we had it in. But the sun, which had followed us throughout the day, stuck by our side the entire return trip north. In the evening, the tops of cotton ball trees ignited in rosy pastel hues, their branches and trunks glowing bright orange against the dimming skies. The morning’s fog turned to evening mist and the sun finally dipped below the hills, throwing the silhouetted trees into perfect contrast against a sky streaked with early evening color. At moments, the sky looked almost identical to how it appeared hours earlier, at 2:35pm, during peak totality. The main difference was how I perceived it, and the entire world around me.
We drove south to Princeton, Kentucky to view the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. Jones-Keeney Wildlife Management Area has a beautiful lookout point called Hunter’s Bluff, which is about a half mile hike up from the gravel parking lot. The trail is not very well maintained, with lots of overgrown plants and fallen logs. Wear sturdy shoes. And if you make the trip, make sure you bring ample water and food, and a trowel – the WMA has no public restrooms or running water. The basic amenities, however, are easy to deal with when your view is so incredible.
My favorite part of any long nighttime car ride is near the end, when you turn off the highway, leave the whirring doppler effect behind, and pull onto a dusty two-lane street. With the windows open, you can hear the clicking and humming, insects and other small bits of life, vibrating in the forest beyond the reach of your headlights. Pulling into Indiana Dunes State Park last night, the orchestra took flight, the sounds of bugs pulsating, shaking like a full band of maracas.
When we parked and walked toward the roaring waves of Lake Michigan, the air turned cool and damp. We pushed through the mist hovering just above the dark sea of dune grass. Cold sand sifted between our toes as we waddled to an open spot on the beach. The loud crash of lakewater slowed and dampened as we laid out blankets and lowered ourselves down.
Getting your bearings in the dark is tough, but our eyes slowly adjusted. An inlet of rippling water to our left, miles of soft, quiet beach to our right. Black masses lay in gathered groups on the sand, couples, families, reclining spectators awaiting the show. In the distance, a group of eager stargazers waved glowsticks below the deep black silhouette of the hulking forest. We pulled on hooded sweatshirts and huddled close. We arched our necks and searched the sky.
Millions, billions, innumerable families of stars gazed down at us, their unwavering eyes gleaming curiously, so many lightyears away. Airplanes and satellites blinked overhead, wading in the unknowable distance. The sky was alight, gorgeous and indifferent to the aura of light pollution radiating from Chicago. We looked up, eyes darting between constellations, and suddenly, quickly, a bright green streak rushed across the blackness. The shrieks and gasps swelled among the crowd, index fingers jutted from balled fists, pointing up toward what just was.
A meteor, sometimes the size of a marble, more often no bigger than a grain of sand. Crashing into our atmosphere, compressing the air around it, heating to an unimaginable degree, and burning away. A scientific explanation for what feels, in the moment, like magic. Like a secret, shared only by those lucky enough to catch the same shooting star. I took no photos, I have no evidence of what I saw, all I have are my memories of staring into the abyss above, asking my questions, and receiving the answers in the form of dust and ice, mass meeting gas.
After the show — meteors bursting every few minutes, the wind whipping from all directions — the clouds began to crowd the sky, obscuring the stars from view. That’s when, from behind the towering tree-topped dunes, an even brighter glow caught our eyes. The three-quarter moon, cratered and luminous, enveloped by a rosy pink halo. She climbed, filling the void, shining a cold heat, dancing slowly to the soundtrack of spindly arthropod legs fluttering in the forest. This is the moon that followed us all the way home; back down the two-lane road; back onto the roaring highway; back to the concrete puzzle of streets where we laid our heads to sleep, dreaming of the magnetic splinters of light we saw spark, stretch, and disappear.
The past few weeks – months, really – I’ve taken a bit of a break from writing to revisit an old love. Drawing was always my first outlet, the one that stayed and morphed with me as I got older and eventually developed a career. When I’m not writing here or wandering with my camera outside, I’m making art, drawing for clients, and more recently, for myself.
Earlier this month I got a selection of my personal illustrations hand-screenprinted – the prints are now up for sale. If you want to bring a bit of the outdoors in, or have a blank wall begging for some artwork, I hope one of my pieces catch your eye.
A new website has recently launched, aiming to support and connect female travel writers of color through personal essays, city guides, travel tips, videos, podcasts, and forums. It’s called On She Goes, and I’m thrilled to have a piece live on the site. I wrote about the camping trip I took in February in Florida, to beautiful and remote Cayo Costa State Park. I’ll be posting more photos from the trip, but in the meantime, here’s the story: Reconnecting with Nature on Cayo Costa.
Because of schedules and timetables and prior commitments, I knew I would have one full day in San Francisco to spend on my own. So I got an early start. BART dropped me off at the 16th Street station shy of 8am, where I walked past businesses still sleeping behind graffitied metal shutters. I feasted on a soft red pepper quiche from Tartine and bagged up half of my morning bun before hopping on a MUNI heading west.
I’d read that the San Francisco Botanical Garden was free as long as you arrived before 9am, and that’s exactly what I did. I strolled across Lincoln Way, down the most beautiful Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive I’d ever been on, and walked right through the garden’s open gate.
There are a lot of benefits to getting to the botanical garden early.
Before 9am, you’ll have the place to yourself. You can wander from corner to corner, circling around cloud forests and through redwood trails without hearing so much as another footstep. The only people I encountered were staff: quietly deadheading, pruning, hosing down. And where the staff couldn’t reach, the irrigation system compensated. Hundreds of automatically timed sprinklers shuddered from behind wide leaves and brilliant inflorescence. As I went through the garden, I ran to dodge the great arcs of water. I shielded my camera from the unchecked droplets and watched the sun glitter in the periodic downpour.
Before 9am, you can wander the garden freely. Just up a short hill, beyond the sun-loving succulents, I found backstage. Plants-in-process. There were no elaborate planting schemes, or well-placed interpretive plaques. Back here, in the far corner of the garden, young plants sat tucked into their plastic trays, tagged with their scientific names, staked and tied in white plastic hoop houses. Under the shade of a row of giant eucalyptus trees and below the looming Sutro Tower, I imagined what it would be like to work in the gardens, to care for the greenery, to see the early morning sun touch their leaves every day.
That light, that unique light, is perhaps the best benefit to getting to the garden before 9am. The early morning sun is sly and generous, its angled beams streaming and pooling on the edges of silhouetted fronds. Before the sun reaches its midday high point, shadows are long and deep, pushing the bright colors of the foliage into even starker contrast. There’s a haze in the air, most likely still settling dew, that catches the light and turns it a warming yellow green. That light, like the morning itself, is a quiet secret: curling your lips at the corners; begging to be told; pressing on your lungs until they swiftly inhale and when you open your mouth, the sound that’s released is peppered with birdsong.
San Francisco Botanical Garden is 55 acres of walkable garden paradise, located in Golden Gate Park. It’s easily accessible via public transportation, many MUNI buses drive right by. If you’re planning to get there early in the morning, bring a jacket with you. San Francisco is beautiful, but it can get pretty chilly.
The end of the calendar year has always felt a little awkward to me, a little arbitrary. The line between December and January is so thin, almost indiscernible, save for the dwindling number of round fir wreaths on doors and hazy twinkle lights in windows. We go from love and ritual and celebration to stoic facial expressions and lists written in pen, I-resolve-tos and I-really-mean-it-this-years. I know the new year signifies a fresh start for many people, an opportunity to try each month, week, day over again. But I struggle to find new energy between one cold, snowy day and another.
On the other hand, the door between days in early May swings wide. 24 hours of sleet can be immediately followed by sun-warmed skin and a cloudless sky. Trees that were asleep on Monday can sprout on Wednesday and stretch wide to full leaf by week’s end. Spring was a subtler affair when I was growing up in southern California, but here in Chicago, in early May, it’s a 30-piece brass band: warming up with a rumbling din; a sudden, jarring racket of out-of-tune notes; a swelling, well-known tune played in perfect harmony, uncanny in its effortless perfection.
It’s easy to see this time of year as the time to start over, to brush off old plans and introduce new goals. The endless changes in the natural world almost demand it. “We’re in transition. What about you?” It’s not the beginning of the calendar year, but it is the time to visualize and resolve. As it turns out, it’s also the beginning of my personal new year. My birthday is in early May. The 4th, to be precise. So today, it all starts fresh.
Last night in my living room, as the sun set, I watched the thick gray clouds dissipate and uncover a hot, pink sky. The colors, almost impossibly saturated and strong, didn’t last for long — night draws its flat shade quickly this time of year. But as the afternoon disappeared into evening, the sky sizzled, burning through everything that had happened in the past 24 hours, and in the past 365 days. I saw the sky’s fire consume all I’d done and thought and lost and broken, won and created and accomplished and forgot, ignored, adopted, transformed, destroyed. It all fell away. The colors began to lose their heat, fading to a dustier range of hues, and as the day retreated, I put the old year to rest.
Today, the new year begins. The 30-piece brass band is warming up. Their fingers fiddle nervously at valves and reeds, tightening and polishing the cool metal. When they’re ready, they inhale in unison before letting the first, clear note ring out, familiar and sweet.
I convinced my sister to walk around the Gardens at Lake Merritt with me. It doesn’t take much prodding to get me to spend a few hours in a public park on a sunny day. I’m always looking to take a breath, sink in. But my sister is a different person than I am. She hustles, negotiates, achieves.
When I was a child, I often flew up from Los Angeles to stay with her in Oakland. She’s fourteen years older than me, and when I was a kid, the age gap felt wide and wonderful. Back then, she was always stretching me, pushing me to try new things. Once she tried to get me to run with her around the full perimeter of Lake Merritt, an idea that we both abandoned after just a few blocks of my heaving and wheezing.
She didn’t put her life on pause just because her little sister was in town. I tagged along to devastatingly cool 90s house parties: brightly lit rooms filled with flattops and fades, university grays and grinning white teeth held in place by parenthetical goatees. My mind was always racing to figure out what to say to her friends that were older and, at the time, smarter and funnier than I could ever hope to become. I remember one party where I got a roomful of adults to laugh at a joke I had made — my limbs went slightly numb at the rush of adrenaline that had brought with it equal amounts of surprise and pride.
Those trips to Oakland were exciting, and scary. There was nothing stagnant about my sister or her life. She was an adult, in all the ways I could think to measure adulthood. During that time, the river of new thoughts and ideas and experiences rushed from her to me. She pushed me forward, nudged open the window that revealed a full landscape of possibilities, paths that led to social and intellectual fulfillment, corners punctuated by delicious food.
We laughed over soft, sweet dough from Merritt Bakery, hot griddled patties at Fatburger, foil-wrapped bean and cheese burritos, always with sour cream. I can still feel the coolness of the air in her Pearl Street apartment garage. I still remember how both of our voices sounded when we yelled out memorized rap verses on repeat, the words echoing between the windows of her white Miata.
There are some things that haven’t changed at all between us, even now when I go out to visit her in the Bay Area. I still feel young, inexperienced. I still crave her guidance and approval. During my recent trip to Oakland, I ate up my sister’s advice, gratefully let her chauffeur me around the city, fit myself snug to the corners of her life’s finely-sanded edges. We floated into a familiar dynamic, but I felt my own influences begin to assert themselves, for perhaps the first time in so many years.
I challenged my sister to take a break. I reacquainted her with corners of her city she’d only skimmed. I guided her to and through these bright green gardens, a short walk from the same lake we’d tried running around years before. This time, I set the pace.
It was September, and though some of the deciduous leaves had already dropped, giant evergreen palms hovered above us, absorbing and reflecting the 80 degree heat. We walked slowly through the themed gardens: Japanese, edible, ornamental, desert. My thoughts wandered to the times we’d spent in this city, at this lake; to the history we share; to the traits and quirks that bind us together.
As we drifted through the densely planted corridors, we fell quiet and felt content. We talked low and laughed loudly; the beat of our footsteps falling into time, the sound of traffic on Grand Avenue whistling a familiar breeze at our backs. I was happy I’d been able to convince my sister to come with me to the park. And I think I know her well enough by now to say I could tell she was happy, too.
The Gardens at Lake Merritt are free to the public and open daily 9am-5:30pm. The bonsai gardens have slightly different hours, so check before you go The Gardens are a short and scenic 20 minute walk from the 19th Street BART station. If you’re feeling active, you can walk (or run) around the lake on the paved 3.2 mile multi-use path. If you’re feeling lazy, find a bench to sit on and watch the whole city stroll by. If you have a sister, bring her with you.