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.
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.
The day after Christmas, we heard it was going to be 50 degrees outside, a continuation of the extreme weather swings of the past few weeks. So we put on our fall boots and rode a bus all the way out East. We walked to Lake Michigan, and through Lincoln Park, and into the Conservatory. The wind along the lakefront threatened to push us over, but we bristled ourselves against the gusts and set our eyes out over the horizon.
We joined the steady flow of folks from out of town, folks visiting family, folks venturing out of their homes and pajamas for the first time in days. It was busy, the walkways were stuffed edge to edge with selfie-takers and cousins and new couples meeting parents for the first time. Children pointed out scavenger hunt finds and captured holiday trains on their tiny cellphones.
For the day, we had spring, a momentary break from the hostile weather of early December. At the end of the month, we were welcome outside again. We knew it wouldn’t last, but it felt good to get out, to get some fresh air, to walk along well worn paths and see some color.
Today, here in Chicago, it has started to snow. The first snow of the season is always a bit of a recalibration. It reminds me of where we are within the cycles of growth and decay, of light and dark. I had been finding it hard to believe that it was already December and that the end of the year was only a few short weeks away. But then this morning I woke up to snow, and it made sense again.
I always struggle to remember, when it’s snowing and I’m wrapped in multiple insulating layers and my fingertips are turning blue, that it was once warm. Not just warm, hot. The kind of heat that makes you gasp for air. The kind of heat that seeps into your body and radiates off of you, creating an echoing aura that hums when you get too close to anything or anyone else. The kind of heat that that coaxes your body into producing more sweat than you thought was possible.
This day I spent in Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters was like that.
It was August and my full week in New York City was coming to a close. Despite the intense heatwave and tropical storm system that seemed to be oscillating around the eastern seaboard, I was able to convince my best friend to join me on a sojourn out of Brooklyn and up to Washington Heights.
After riding the cool, stainless steel A train up along the eastern shore of Manhattan, we emerged in a green world. The cicadas were screaming their mechanic song and the heavy air was still in the tallest trees. The rolling Hudson River peeked through a clearing in the leaves and we caught our first glimpse of the giant old fort structures, built and used during the Revolutionary War.
We made our way to the Heather Garden where layers of green folded over and into each other, the landscape punctuated on its edges by tall elm trees. The drunk bees were in wild collection mode, barely visible inside deep flower cups, sucking up the nectar from alliums, irises, black-eyed susans, and all varieties of heaths and heathers. Along the snaking path, we stopped to gape at bright white hibiscus blooms, perfect and unblemished, with diameters bigger than pie pans.
And then we got to the Cloisters Museum, where trefoil arcades created perfect frames for the surrounding greenery. Where potted plants huddled around elaborately sculpted columns. Where low-set walls of marbled gray and pink stone held in serene central gardens: the carefully reconstructed cloisters for which the museum is named.
The indoor galleries at the Cloisters hold a collection of medieval art displaying both the beauty and brutality of the era. Wandering among the intricate tapestries and gold Byzantine jewelry, we caught our breath and soaked in the cool, conditioned air. We dipped in and out of the museum, into the dark galleries and out to the walled gardens. We eased away the goosebumps of the frigid, climate controlled rooms among the scorching hot terraces and beds planted heavily with ancient herbs cultivated in the medieval age.
Watching families wander among the gardens and tiny sparrows spin and flap their wings in a trickling stone fountain, I felt as if I’d stumbled into an alternate universe. One where the traffic and concrete intensity of midtown felt impossible and unknown. Where an interest in history and an avid appreciation for beautiful spaces were shared by everyone in attendance, all ethnicities and age ranges included. Where the immense hand of high summer’s heat touched us all, but couldn’t hold us back from enjoying what the vast city had to offer.
I had a hard time tearing myself away from this place. I’d kept the Cloisters in the back of my mind for years, since learning it held many artworks and artifacts I’d studied years ago in my high school art history classes. My eyes whipped around me, focusing on every leaflet and sprout and piece of delicately carved rock. I watched as the sun blazed mercilessly on everything in its reach, casting hard, sharp shadows through vine and pillar. I breathed in my fill of the thick, fragranced air, held in place by the wide Hudson River and the deep valleys dug out from clay and stone. But then, eventually, we started our trek back to the train and back into the belly of the city. We wandered through the deep brush of Fort Tryon Park and back to 190th Street, past children and adults running through fountains in the nearby playlot, seeking out relief from the profound heat.
Back here at home, in Chicago, remembering this day feels like a distant dream. Here, the sky has turned flat and white, has turned on its faucet producing an endless shower of fat, wet flakes, has lowered to envelop us in its impenetrable opaque globe. I know the sun is still up there, hot and unfiltered, probably warming the skin of park wanderers and lawn picnickers on the opposite side of the globe. But here in Chicago, I watch the fresh snow pile up on the bare oak branches outside my window and reminisce about when the sun, in all its harshness and warmth, was mine.
Fort Tryon Park is located at the far north end of Manhattan in Washington Heights. It’s a nice, relaxing ride on the A train, one made even shorter if you manage to catch an express train. To get to the Cloisters, you have to walk through Fort Tryon Park along a path that leads you through the Heather Garden to the east, or through the dense forest to the west. Gorgeous (and sweltering) in the summer, a walk through these lush areas will definitely impress year-round. Also helpful to note that admission to the Cloisters museum is suggested donation, so you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to enjoy these beautiful spaces.
Gears grinding, steel catching high noon light in creaky crevices, hi-viz orange plastic cones and barriers peeking between branched brown and green grass. Wind rustling long reeds against each other, and workers yelling instruction from cherry pickers up overhead. Traffic running below, bumper to bumper beside the shore of the Hudson River. Airy patches of plantings fusing into a muddled base of patchwork color. And rising out of the shuffle of green: hard brick, poured concrete, glass and transom, brackets, beams, bolts, crumbled mortar, twisted wire fencing. Weather-worn train tracks encased in thick mud glint in the ground like exposed dinosaur bones.
The plants on the High Line are the same plants that grew on this old elevated train line soon after it began to wither into obsolescence. Their current orderly arrangement nods at human intervention, but the feeling remains: nature has taken this space back.
A walk along the Line puts you into a new loop of perception. A plant connects to a railing connects to the street and the buildings beyond. A tree points upward at the skyscraper hovering above. A shrub spreads, its triangular limbs directing your eyes toward the urban geometry around it. The sounds boomerang from wind in the leaves, to birds and people chirping, chattering, to the sudden boom of construction and giant metal claws grasping at endless asphalt.
There are no wheels allowed up here. Our slow, normal, human feet propel us down the snaking green path, forcing a reset of pace and adjustment in awareness: a welcome change against the rush and hustle of the city street below. Up here, you can see it all. You just have to slow down and look for it.
New York City’s High Line is located in the Chelsea neighborhood along the lower west side of Manhattan. It runs from Ganesvoort at the south and 34th Street to the north, with entrances every few blocks. They periodically close some of the entrances for updates and repairs, so check their website before heading over. It gets busy in the summer and in the early afternoon — for more privacy and magical lighting, try getting there early in the morning, or anytime during the winter (just wear a good quality coat)!
When I walked through Humboldt Park during the famous snowpocalypse of 2011, the drifts came up to my waist. When we all lived in nearby Ukrainian Village, two friends and I bundled up in several layers and stumbled through uncleared sidewalks and alleyways. Parked cars were buried in snow up to their rooftops. We crossed Western Ave and into the Humboldt Park neighborhood, usually electric with action and conversation. That day, it fell silent, as silent as the Park itself. Everyone was still inside, huddling beneath blankets and beside space heaters. In the Park, a lone figure trudged through the snow off in the horizon. We wandered through quiet, covered fields — in awe of the overwhelming whiteness, ice falling into our high boots, fingers frozen and balled inside our pockets.
Last week, on an unexpectedly warm fall day, I walked through Humboldt Park again. I wore a short sleeved shirt. No socks. The sun beat down on the top of my head, fingers fell lazily at my sides, not balled up like they instinctively do in cold weather. It was me and a crowd of other west siders, strolling, sitting, fishing, bartering, and jamming with their dueling salsa bands, speaker volume turned all the way up.
I’ll never get tired of the sights and sounds of people loving being outside. That day, as I walked through Humboldt Park, I fell in love over and over. With families watching the ducks float in the lagoon. With weekend warriors stringing up portable hammocks between the trees. With grillers, runners, strollers, and salsa dancers, shoes off, feet twirling in flattened crabgrass. And all around us, the angled sun pierced through gaps in the turning leaves, tinting the crowd in swatches of orange and warm yellow.
In fall, as in summer, the pace can be frantic, there’s an impulse to take advantage of the weather “while it’s still nice.” And it can all feel very rushed, if we let it. We push ourselves to go outside so at the end of the season we can say, I was there, and I didn’t let it pass me by. But pressure and pleasure make bad bedfellows. I’ve realized the secret to enjoying fall is in refusing to take heed of the clock. It’s in recognizing each day for what it brings, releasing expectations on ourselves and on the world around us. The secret is in loving each leaf when it’s there, and accepting when its time to fall has come.
So on the warm fall day when I walked through Humboldt Park, I didn’t think once about the chill I felt in my bones during my snowpocalypse wander five years before. I didn’t dread the inevitable day when the trees would all lose their color, when the lagoon would freeze over, and the sky would turn soft and gray. I didn’t preemptively mourn the retreat of the autumn revelers, imagining the pull of itchy wool against their arms and the track of salted footsteps up their wooden front stairs.
I just watched, and walked, and enjoyed the day for what it was.
Humboldt Park is a gorgeous 200 acre park on the near west side of Chicago. It holds a nature sanctuary and bird/butterfly habitat, as well as many areas for protected native prairie plants. This isn’t generally a park to visit if you don’t want to interact with other people, but I think that’s part of its beauty. Come here to people watch, to joke with the fishermen, to help a wayward toddler back onto the trail, to gobble down a picnic of jibaritos that you bought down the street, and to enjoy the sights and sounds of a well-loved public park. Humboldt Park is easily accessed via public transit: the #72 North bus, #52 Kedzie/California bus, and #70 Division bus all drive right by.
I entered Central Park at 59th Street, Columbus Circle, a tangle of curved roads and angry cab drivers. I’d already walked a fair amount, almost half the length of Manhattan from the lowest end of Chelsea, all the while surrounded by traffic. The relief washed over me when, from the street, I could finally see the crowd of trees hovering above the cars. I’d been to Central Park before, but only on brisk walks, crosstown buses, and vicariously in almost every movie set in New York City. On this day, a hot, cloudy one in mid-August, I planned to wander.
Green was everywhere I looked. In Central Park, the view are layered: slices of green are stacked vertically, topped with beautiful architecture built of stone, glass, and steel. The bodies of water, victims of giant summer algae blooms, sparkled green too, almost mimicking the park’s great lawns and meadows.
The Bethesda Terrace provided a place for a much needed rest. Hundreds of people circled the fountain holding selfie sticks at arm’s length, while hundreds more shuffled through the lower passage, listening on as an opera singer’s shimmering voice echoed against the tile and sandstone.
Walking along East Drive led me to Iphigene’s Walk and The Ramble, a central area of the Park that could by easily mistaken for a deep, quiet, well-paved forest in a town far from NYC. The air smells different here, damp and clean, the tree canopies shade wanderers from the harsh sun and provide a place to escape the crowds that are inevitable in more well-worn areas of the park. Birds and squirrels rustled in the brush and darted across the path. Passersby nodded a silent greeting. A young couple sat along the banks of The Lake and gazed out over the rippling water.
After spending some time alone in The Ramble, I made my way back to the city, back to where people jogged and sauntered, talked and texted, yelled and laughed. I watched the world walk by, people of every background and interest, people who’d lived their whole lives in New York, and people who had traveled across the world to be there for one day.
I sat for a while, feet exhausted from the full day of walking, and looked on at a man with two sticks and a string creating giant, human-sized bubbles. Iridescent and amorphous, the bubbles reflected the surrounding trees in wild, psychedelic colors. They grew and caught the breeze, drifting a ways before popping and disappearing. Every head turned, people stopped to enjoy the show, they chatted with their neighbors, and then left, continuing on to different corners of the park, and eventually, back out into the city.
Central Park is the largest park in the city of New York, one of the largest public parks in the country, and a wildly magical place no matter the time of year. It is, as the name suggests, centrally located and very easily accessible on foot or on public transportation from just about every corner of Manhattan.
There’s a little patch of wild nature in Chicago, I recently discovered.
The plants are allowed to grow as they had for years and years before we began to pave and farm and coax green from the ground and each others’ pockets.
The trees are allowed to reach far into the sky, and crack and break, falling to the ground to be reclaimed by the soil.
The grasses are allowed to sway in the strong breeze, hiding vast numbers of bugs, clicking and buzzing deep in the brush.
The water that collects is allowed to dry and swell with the patchy storms and dusty droughts that punctuate this city’s long summer.
Even the areas built for humans are meant to observe and support life.
This was a green place, this bit of nature that I found. But it won’t be for long. It will change with the seasons, turning brown in October, and white in December. But it will change only on its terms.
There’s a certain energy to a plot of land that is left to grow and shrink as it wants. It makes a specific sound, smells a certain way, feels different under foot. When you slow down, sit, watch, listen, you can pick up on the cues being sent back and forth. Your eyes readjust to the lights and darks and the shades in between, finding the life that slips along in the shadows, usually right beneath our noses.
North Park Village Nature Center is a breath of fresh air on the far north side of the city, near the intersection of Pulaski and Peterson. It’s a beautiful place to wander through multiple ecosystems, including forests, prairies, and wetlands. They offer a full schedule of classes and programming for kids and adults and are open seven days a week, 10am-4pm. The Nature Center is easily accessed by public transportation using the #84 Peterson bus or the #53 Pulaski bus. There is no cost for entrance.
We’ve been taking an annual trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden for a few years now. The Garden’s hundreds of acres unfurl into an infinite number layered views, gushing with color and texture. I’ve spent many, many hours exploring the individual themed gardens, walking as many of the crushed gravel paths as I could, maximizing my time in this planted oasis. But every year, I find more. More hidden corners of the grounds, more plant combinations, more sights for these sore city eyes.
We always take our trip out to the Gardens on Labor Day. The bonus day, third day in a three day weekend nestled well inside the warm weather season. This year, it felt like half the city of Chicago had the same idea. The gardens were full. Multi-generational families lingered on bridges, beers clinked in the grill patio, and rows of strollers lined up outside the butterfly tent.
There were thousands of people exploring the gardens, bickering, laughing, sharing seating space on wide, flat rocks. We listened in on friends catching up, a wife telling her husband her cheeseburger-and-red-wine order, mothers and sons giggling about recently made memories. I heard different languages, many of which I couldn’t identify. I saw white linen robes and jewel-toned saris billowing with the wind, and baseball caps shielding eyes from the late day sun.
We all wandered from garden to garden. Inspired by the same call to leave our homes and enjoy a day off together, outside. We all sighed in relief under the shade of a tall tree. We all inhaled deep when we passed the scent throw of a flowering plant.
I enjoy spending time in beautiful gardens because I love the plants. The way they look and smell and feel. Their patterns, the way they splay their leaves, the way they catch sun and shade throughout the day. But my favorite part about the CBG might be watching how other people interact with the garden. You don’t have to know everything about horticulture or garden design or biodiversity to be able to enjoy the space. You just have to use your senses.
From afternoon until evening, I watched the Garden come in and out of focus. It shone as scads of eyes grazed over its hills and ponds, picking out particular plants as singular objects of attention. And then it faded into the background, sparkling like lens blur, behind the faces and stories of all its visitors.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is almost 400 acres of beautifully planted gardens located in Highland Park, a north shore suburb of Chicago. I get there using the Metra Union Pacific North line, which costs about $6 roundtrip. Get off at Braeside and walk 20 minutes to the Visitors Center where you can get your bearings and plan your route. My favorite stops include the Japanese Garden, the Council Ring on Evening Island, the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, and the Prairie. I’ve only ever been to the CBG in the summer, but it’s open year-round and I imagine it is stunning during any season. Parking costs $25-30, but entrance on foot or by bike is free.
We stuffed our packs and rolled up sleeping pads borrowed from gearhead friends. We took a train to a bus and then walked ten minutes past crowded museum steps and beach front hot dog stands. We signed waivers and scoped out spots for our tents alongside a thick row of wiry green stems. We caught glimpses of choppy Lake Michigan through openings in the brush. The glowing gray buildings of downtown Chicago stood sentinel to the west, hugged and held by the hot afternoon sun.
We kayaked in a shallow lagoon bordered by bog-loving plants, learning proper paddle technique and racing each other from end to end. The breeze off the lake and the droplets of water that inevitably found their way into our boats kept us cool. We hiked slowly back to camp where we drank beers and ate perfect, plump plátanos around a well-tended firepit. The sun dipped down behind the city and we watched the bright moon rise red over the lake. We shared jokes and ghost stories and turned our fingers sticky with melted marshmallow.
That night we heard the cars rush down Lake Shore Drive, and the wind whip rhythmically at our tent walls, and the crickets chirp out loud, to each other, to themselves. We heard the distant hiss of a neighbor’s tent zipper, and the ringing of an ambulance floating deep through downtown.
The morning brought squishy walks through dewy lawns, a climb along the rocky lakefront, and a race to catch the quickly changing light of the sunrise. The sky and clouds churned an infinite number of colors, and we watched the waves creep over the hard concrete dock. People in pairs sat below the planetarium, clicking photos of the neon pink sun, or just watching the day open up.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, the cloud cover thickened and the threat of storms rolled in. We broke down camp, warmed our bagels over the bonfire, and made our way back to the bus. Sitting on the elevated subway, clutching our transit cards and cellphones, still clipped into our giant packs with sand between our toes, the distance between nature and the city quietly collapsed.
I thought back to our hikes to the lagoon, to floating through marsh plants in a bright red kayak, to spotting glowing planets in the hazy pink sky. I thought back to the crackle of the early morning fire, and the sound of hot coffee being poured into a stainless steel thermos, and the patterns of clouds passing over a warming sun.
I remembered the early morning conversation we had with one of the campout guides, about the places he’d lived and how each of them are entirely unique and can’t be replicated. About how Chicago is it’s own amazing thing, and so is Oregon, and so is Tennessee, and everywhere else. I thought about the times I’d wished Chicago could be different, more, something else, something better. And I felt something shift in my mind where a frustration had once been. I felt full and excited and grateful. And I looked forward to another night, some time in the future, spent out under the stars.
We spent a night camping on Northerly Island with REI. Camping within the city of Chicago is essentially non-existent, so this experience was incredibly special. I’ve gone out before on an excursion with REI and can’t recommend them more highly. They are experts who are fun to be around and take care of everything. But even if you can’t make it to the next campout, a hike around Northerly Island Park is still time very well spent. The park can be accessed on public transit using the #146 bus to Museum Campus.