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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The day before Christmas, the sideways snow beckoned me. We rushed to pull on our thickest boots and layers of wool. People were out on the streets, no doubt in search of last minute gifts. We, however, were on the hunt for something different, quieter.
The forest was silent, save for the shifting snow beneath our feet, and the howl of the late December wind. We spotted a few pairs of footsteps, both human and non. All hardy pioneers who must have walked these paths just before us, curving the trails slowly, in wonder.
The snow made a new home of every surface, on ridges in the tiniest leaves, deep in creases in desiccated inflorescence, nestled in the elbows of stems and branches. Each a perfect container for the icy white flecks. The whole world, a bowl, filling slowly, steadily.
We shuffled across an old concrete bridge, sprayed with decades of graffiti, and peered over the edge. The Chicago River below, weaving between wedged white rocks, holding afloat a family of ducks unfazed by the cold. The morning’s accumulation on my coat’s hood and shoulders had begun to melt, and my hands were icy and hard. But I was mesmerized by the slow swirl of the water, the endless fall of the tiniest snowflakes, the arches and shapes left behind in winter’s wake. My feet held firm to the spot.
The cold, and the ache of hunger, eventually shook us awake from our forest dream. Before heading home, we ambled east to the lakefront. We weren’t alone. A bulk of families, careening down and trudging back up the sledding hill. A handful of men, heavy with gear, photographing a flock of stubborn seabirds. And us, steeling ourselves against the beach’s swift winds, hoods pulled tight, eyes wide open to the perfect beauty of a snowy day.
The LaBagh Woods is an incredible forest preserve right in Chicago. When you’re in the middle of the park, you’ll barely have any recollection that you’re still in the city. It’s easy to get to on bus, either the 54A Cicero, or the 92 Foster. For some winter beach time, we went to Montrose Beach and swung past Cricket Hill, a great place to sled or just feed your yearning for a change in elevation. In the winter, where you go outside doesn’t really matter. It’s going outside at all that makes the difference. So even though it’s freezing, I promise you’ll be happy you went.
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.
Fall isn’t an easy season to love. I suppose for people that love fall, that statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. So I’ll restate and say fall hasn’t been an easy season for me to love. It’s beautiful on the surface, but fall embodies a mortal challenge, an essential question — can we acknowledge and appreciate what we have before it inevitably disappears?
I love spring and summer because they’re warm, full of life, full of promise. Fall’s promise is a brilliant star, bursting violently before petering out. A final flash. A timed test. Fall isn’t easy like spring and summer. Loving fall has been a trial. Some years I lose, some years I win. With age, acceptance has begun to come easier to me, but I still struggle. I still want the warmth and color to last always.
There’s something about fall that makes you want to reach out for it. Fall feels like a love you know has changed, you feel it slipping away from you, but all you can do is watch it disappear. Fall feels soft and cruel at the same time. It’s a feathery seedpod, most inviting, but quickly disintegrating even within your lightest grasp.
Fall is alive, but you know it won’t be for long. The squirrels hurry, hawks swoop with urgency, late summer wildflowers rush to spread seeds and tuck in for the long night to come. Logic knows the end is right around the corner, but our eyes gobble up the warm prism reflected through every brightly hued leaf. The forest feels alive, more than ever — its gestures wide, its angles active.
And in fall, we can’t help but see ourselves in the mirror all around us. We can’t help but wonder where we fit into all this change. The seasons are the simplest and most enduring metaphor for our own mortality, and fall is a beautiful, tragic reminder that none of this can last forever.
So loving fall isn’t easy. Loving fall is accepting the fear, accepting what happens next — the all-consuming cold, the complete drought of color, the sharp and brutal winter. Maybe sleep, maybe death. I still feel myself stiffen as summer comes to a close, my instinct to resist the shift in seasons and run. But with each leaf, turning from green to bright red to brown and done, I remember that loving fall is loving change. It might not be an easy season, but with each passing year, the transition feels a little less impossible.
These photos were taken during a perfect fall day in the Miami Woods, a forest preserve along the north branch of the Chicago River in Morton Grove, Illinois. The woods can be reached via Metra or the Skokie Swift. It’s a spectacular place to walk slowly, get off the trail, and soak in the change happening all around you.
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 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.