It being January, those familiar with Chicago, even very casually, know what the weather is like on the other side of the window. Winter’s got its gnarled grip on the city, and most likely will not let go until May. In an attempt to refresh and rehydrate, I scheduled my first trip of the new year – a week in northern California visiting friends and family.
Even in January, Oakland’s river of parks and outdoor spaces run green, a deeply saturated green. The trails are alive with plants at all stages of the growth process, fern fronds drip with dew and moss and fungus squeeze through cracks in centuries old bark. Midway through my trip, I convinced a good friend to join me on a morning hike around Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, which is essentially a living native plant museum. My dream come true.
The species of flora in Huckleberry can’t be found anywhere else in the East Bay. Throughout the loop, interpretive plaques lean toward passersby from the surrounding brush, describing plants of interest with an unmatched lyricism. The morning I set out, parents pointed at the illustrated berries and trunk burls, cross referencing their maps. Children dashed down muddy paths, a flurry of energy beneath the serene bay tree forest. I breathed in deep at every turn in the trail, noticing the sounds, the smells, the particular quality of light filtering through even the thickest leaves.
One of my favorite writers, Rahawa Haile, recently reported on a forest bathing excursion she took in the East Bay, not far from Huckleberry. She wrote of focusing on the little things, heightening her awareness of her surroundings, letting her mind fall quiet. Back home in Chicago, I’d never thought of going out specifically in search of a place to forest bathe, but reading Haile’s description, I realized it’s what I do every time I spend time in nature. I get intentional. I walk slowly, probably deeply frustrating those I wrangle into hiking with me. I consider every plant, every color, and shade, and tint, every texture, every level of contrast from brightest white to deep, dark black.
The breadth of plant life at Huckleberry is dizzying, but walking the trail there, experiencing this unique ecological community, is the most soothing experience I’ve had outdoors in a long while. I know for sure that coming from Chicago’s deep winter, the Bay Area’s greens looked greener, the humidity in the air felt more moisturizing, the magic of turning the corner from a deeply shaded chunk of trail into the bright, warm sun – unspeakably stronger.
Maybe it’s warm and pleasant where you live, but if it’s real winter – deep winter, the kind of winter that burrows under your skin and refuses to let go – maybe these memories of a morning under the live canyon oak canopy will transport you. Breathe deep. Let’s take a walk.
Oakland CA’sHuckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve is a glorious place to visit in winter. The loop trail is moderate, though it does include some semi-steep elevation changes. There were a few bugs buzzing about, which I imagine would become more of a nuisance as the weather gets warmer. Getting to Huckleberry is easiest in a car (I carpooled with a friend), but the East Bay bus service, AC Transit, will get you within a 10 minute walk of the trailhead on Bus 642.
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.
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.
Back in September, I took a trip by myself to northern California. Well, technically, I wasn’t completely by myself. My sister and her family live there, along with a handful of good friends from college. I admit, I had a free bed to sleep in, a familiar fridge to raid, and pickups and dropoffs at the airport. The goal of the trip was to spend time with my family and while I feel lucky that I was able to do that, people have lives and I don’t expect them to rearrange everything for me when I’m in town. So I ended up spending a good amount of time there by myself, walking new neighborhoods, mapping and planning, and taking long hikes.
The day I arrived, I put down my bags, ate a quick lunch, packed some water and snacks and headed out to the park. The public transportation near my sister’s house isn’t great but I love to walk, so the mile and a half it would take to get to Redwood Regional Park didn’t scare me. I’d hiked before, especially long distances in dense urban areas (which I believe counts as hiking). It was a beautiful, hot day, the sun was bright, and the sky was big and blue. I felt ready for the adventure.
I started strong, barreling down beside highway on-ramps, watching out for wayward traffic and feeling my legs remember what it’s like to climb hills. I followed signage that led to paved stairs overgrown with ivy, winding up and around grocery stores and law offices. The sidewalks soon melted into dusty paths, the sounds of the highway fell silent behind me, and I heard my rubber soles crunch loudly on the gravely trail. I was hiking. Really hiking! The activity I find myself longing for when I’m in the middle of my cold, concrete city. The activity I know calms and centers me. I breathed deep the smell of eucalyptus and weedy sage. Sandy old oak trees lined the path. I paused and turned to look behind me – and realized I was completely alone.
That’s when the tickle of fear brushed up against me. I was completely alone. What if someone did show up on the trail? What if they wanted to harm me? What if I fell and hurt myself and my phone cut out from connection or ran out of battery? What if I passed out from heat exhaustion? Whatifwhatifwhatif?
A man appeared on the trail in the distance. He slowly walked toward me and I felt my body tense up. I tried to size him up, still several yards away, wondering if I could outrun him if I had to. He padded closer and I held my breath as he came within arm’s reach. He nodded slightly as we passed each other, uninterested, unfazed, focused on his own whatevers and whatifs. I felt the blood redistribute throughout my body, my jaw unclench, my fists unfurl. If something was going to happen to me on this trail, on this hike, on this day, it would happen. But most likely, I would be fine. I exhaled and kept walking.
Many, many years of inherited and self-sustained training in Street Smarts has made me a savvy city resident. Not a minute goes by in my regular life when I’m not highly aware of what’s going on around me, what to keep an eye on, what to avoid. The mistake I made this day on my solo hike was to think I could put that armor down. Time spent outdoors is beautiful and breathtaking and relaxing, but it still demands attention and focus. It requires awareness of the outside world balanced with awareness of your own instincts and capabilities.
The tree-lined trail ended and opened onto a series of steep residential streets. I climbed and climbed until I finally saw the sign for Redwood Regional Park. Exhausted but elated, I sat on a bench overlooking the vast green canyon. Munching on snack packs and guzzling lukewarm water, I listened to hikers’ happy voices drifting up from the creekside trail. Feeling rejuvenated, I got back on my feet and chose a trail. The air around me cooled as I got deeper into the park, giant redwoods hurtling up around me, shielding the path from sun and rain. Ferns grew wild along the trail, covered in months of dust piled on from the waning California drought. There were other hikers that passed me on the way. This time I greeted them gladly.
I’ve done a good amount of reading about and listening to the stories of solo female thru-hikers. I’ve hiked a lot. I’ve never camped alone. I’ve never backpacked at all. The thought of thru-hiking excites me, and fills me with trepidation. I worry somewhat about being completely alone, and being able to handle potentially dangerous situations as they arise. I worry more about my fears of other people on the trail, about whether those fears will be unfounded or not, about whether those fears will protect me or hold me back. I’m not a person who trusts easily, and from what I’ve heard, trust is a thru-hike essential. You have to trust your sense of direction, and trust that your planning was adequate, and trust that the trail will throw the unexpected at you no matter how adequate your planning was, and trust that the other people you may encounter are challenging themselves to trust you, too.
I think a thru-hike is something I’d like to do. My solo hike to, around, and back from Redwood Regional Park tallied in at 7 miles. When I got back to my sister’s house, I felt proud of what I’d accomplished physically and psychologically. And I felt like I could keep going. That’s got to be a good start, right?
Redwood Regional Park is an incredible public land parcel with winding trails and acres of towering redwood trees. There are even campsites available for folks who want to spend more quality time in the woods. The park is easily accessible by car, or you can take BART to Fruitvale Station and then catch the 339 bus. The bus ends at the Chabot Space & Science Center, an observatory that sits right between Redwood Regional and the adjacent Joaquin Miller Park.
Many months in the making, I’m proud to announce that an expanded version of my essay about Los Angeles is now live in the Spring 2017 issue of Waxwing Literary Journal. If you’ve ever asked me about the place where I grew up, or if you keep an eye on my instagram, you probably know that I have a complicated relationship with L.A. I try to unpack some of that in this essay. If you’re into southern California and rich plant-based imagery, read on.
I grew up in Los Angeles. Some things about the place I purposely left behind, and other memories eventually turned vague, replaced by new daily routines, new landmarks, new sights and sounds and smells. But a few details from my years in L.A., I carried with me.
There was the sun and the heat, in all their various incarnations; the sweltering interior of a car parked out under a cloudless sky, the sizzling red blaze of the sunset piercing through the windshield. I knew well the long lean of the afternoon sun as it slipped through the living room blinds, staining white plastered walls with deep orange stripes. Those same stripes turning blue in the evening, reflecting on passing cars and gliding across the stems and leaves of my mother’s houseplants.
I remember the manic landscape. Giant, smooth trunked trees with bright green canopies pruned into odd and fantastic shapes. Jacaranda flowers bursting bright violet and floating like confetti onto the wide boulevards. Miles of sidewalk littered with fallen ficus berries and spiky Sweetgum seedpods. Finding tiny succulents squeezing through cracks in the cement, and ripping dead and dried morning glory vines from balcony rails.
I remember the fourplex apartments dwarfed by giant, towering cacti, and yellowing snake plants sliced in half to show the plastic surgery advertisements behind them. The smell of desert dust and sweetgrass that rose in the cool air after sunset. The gravel crunch and the earthworms that only crawled above ground during the winter rain, turning the sidewalk into a writhing, glimmering minefield.
I remember the distance. How far from nature I felt in some parts of the city, where the only trees in sight were spindly palms, a million feet tall and too thin to offer more than a cruel strip of shade on the gum-stained sidewalk. How exposed I felt there. How giant the sky, and how lost and tiny I was beneath it. I remember straining my eyes toward the palm leaves, strands of green glittering in the harsh sun, reflecting the glare like wet glass. After nightfall, the same palms drummed out a soft sweeping when the warm Santa Ana winds blew, fronds brushing against each other, their echoes interspersed with the roar of traffic.
I grew up in Los Angeles, and last week I went back. In the short time I was there, the city showed me that it’s still vast and incomprehensible. It’s still a strange, jumbled grid of green and gray, an intricate puzzle of well-landscaped parking lots. The city wheezes, choking out hot, smoggy breaths, struggling to hold onto whatever water it can find, and to pump out whatever oil it can still generate.
And yet, it is still beautiful. During our trip, L.A. felt foreign, and just like home. My memories came rushing back to me. The looming San Gabriel mountains burned orange and pink at sunset. The lull and crash of the Pacific’s waves played familiar rhythms. I retraced the curve of ancient oak branches in sandy canyons. And my eyes followed the immense chain of brake lights, so many lanes wide, disappearing in the distance.
Los Angeles is a driving city, so to get up close and personal with the diverse plant population, plan some walking tours or hikes. For this trip, we hiked from the Griffith Park Ferndell up to the Observatory and wandered around the canals in Venice. The Huntington Library and Gardens in nearby Pasadena is a plant lover’s paradise, but know that it’s closed on Tuesdays. For food, definitely go to Sqirl (if there’s a line, just go get in it — it moves quickly and your meal will be worth the wait), and add Cafe Gratitude to your list (the all vegan menu looks pretty crunchy, but is so flavorful and so satisfying). Also, say hi to my Mom if you pass by. Her house is the one with all the plants on the front porch.