The other night, I met a good friend at the Garfield Park Conservatory. What is usually a mid-winter daytime pilgrimage turned into a late night walk through the deep forest, just a few miles away from our homes. The Conservatory is open every day of the year until 5pm, but on Wednesdays, they turn on the lights and let wanderers stroll until 8.
A part of me worried that the rooms of the conservatory, glorious to behold in the daytime, would look stark and unwelcoming at night, with bright fluorescents beating down from overhead. But it was quite the opposite. Bold spotlights gelled in brilliant colors lit up the undersides of ferns, bounced off the bark of tropical trees, dribbled down rocky waterfalls and into rippling, bottomless pools. The sounds of rushing water mixed with the echoes of children laughing in the Sugar from the Sun room. Our footsteps fell on damp stone and shuffled beside leaves rustling in the fan-fed breeze.
There, that night, the air somehow felt more humid. Our ears perked at the chorus of crickets, our noses caught wind of the peat and loam stuffed in crevices at our toes. Some walkways sat in total darkness, and our brains rushed to fill the gaps. In the Desert room, tall columns of cactus masqueraded as men standing perfectly still. Neon colors got caught on succulent leaves and sharp spines, throwing strange shadows on the walls and windows surrounding us. All our senses sharpened to make up for what we couldn’t see in the dark.
I love the sun, and crave the light. Here, on the winter solstice, the precipice of the coldest season, I feel myself falling deeper into the darkness. On the other side of today, the days begin the get longer, minute by minute, but what might I learn by sitting in these shadows, unbothered, unmoved?
As I wandered through the Conservatory that night, I walked past a young woman sitting on a wooden bench in a barely lit room. Her face was calm, her eyes closed, breathing even. I can’t know what she was thinking about, if she was meditating or considering some hidden train of thought, but the sight of her reminded me of what’s special about this season. Now is the time to sit in the shadows, to explore the darkness, wade in it, and get lost in what could be. These dark days hold lessons for us all. And what more perfect place than this to open our eyes wide and wait for them to adjust.
This small serviceberry was a landmark, and a marker of time. I’d been taking photos of it for the past year, hoping to capture it at its peak in every season. I watched its flowers grow and fade, watched its leaves change color and fall. It wasn’t a big tree, maybe around my same height, which is possibly why I noticed it so easily. I could see it get swept through the seasons as wildly as I felt I did — bright orange disks catching the sun on a warm autumn day, and bare winter branches twirling up toward the darkened sky, reaching for the waning light.
This summer I got busy, too busy to take a minute, too busy to remember to slow down. So I didn’t get around to taking any photos of the tree. I noticed it everyday on my walk to work, but would say that there were still months or summer left, still weeks. And when the leaves started to turn, earlier than usual, Oh well – I said – I can get photos of it next summer when the leaves are green again, when the sun shines bright again, when I have more time.
I watched the for sale sign go up, and the for sale sign come down, and saw the new decorations go out, and the tree’s autumn leaves start to fall one by one. And then one morning, there was a patch of mud, a flurry of men digging and tamping and wrangling mangled branches. The little serviceberry tree sat thrown to the side, a clean, decisive cut at its base. No chance of saving the roots and replanting, no chance of the summer photos I’d been planning on, no chance of a winter hibernation or a new spring.
The lesson here is obvious. Or it should have been obvious, but I counted on time nonetheless, something that simply cannot be counted on. The most finite resource, the one we’re least aware of in our daily drudges. I thought what was there would always be there. I thought time was on my side, and that I could delay without consequence. A small tree being cut down in someone else’s yard isn’t the worst thing to happen. I have enough perspective to realize that. But my experience remains a potent reminder.
Do not wait. Do the thing. Admire and appreciate what’s here now.
Pull out the camera, put the viewfinder to your eye, and press the shutter.
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.
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.
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.
At time of writing, I’m sitting on my back porch, wearing shorts. It’s mid-morning and it’s the first truly warm day of the year. The wind is pushing our spindly branches of our pear tree against each other, a rhythmic clacking, almost like the first few drops of rain against the window. The soft sound is interjected by the roar of speeding cars. After months of hearing the traffic muffled through closed windows, the rumbles are sharp again, sudden, surprising. The bird chatter, too, stretches easily to my ears — their calls, like laughter, ringing loud and close.
I’m sitting here, watching the air swirl around me, push the last of the petals from the leafing plum tree up into the air and across our weathered wood deck. The air itself sounds warm again: the sound of leaves brushing, sweeping, rustling. The smells are back, too. After winter’s dry, howling vacuum, even the pear tree’s overripe scent is a welcome reminder that things are alive. I light some incense. It’s what I do when I know I want to sit a while, linger. It’s the kind I can’t burn indoors because it’s too strong, too dusty, will fill the house and our lungs too much. Out here, on my back porch, on the first truly warm day of the year, the sweet clouds rise and twist, hanging on for a few moments before dissolving away.
It’s our nature to want more, to imagine things being different and therefore better. I remember longing for a morning like this, just a few weeks, days, hours ago. Now that it’s here, I feel my brain struggling to stay, focus, accept. I go backward, remembering what the plum tree looked like earlier this week, an explosion of white, pink-centered blooms, bright and clear among the foggy weekday haze. I go forward, spotting the new branches on treetops two blocks away, imagining them bobbing and dancing in full leaf. My eyes understand them to be bare but my brain knows it’s not for long.
How do we — how should we — process moments that we know are fleeting, that we know may never happen again? There are only so many photos to be taken. In the in between times, just being aware must be enough. On my back porch, a heavy gust of wind rushes through, waking up all the wind chimes in the neighborhood. As the wild, tiny orchestra pushes into action, I lean toward the sounds, let each tone sink into my ears, hold them tight, and then let them go.