Adventure featured heavily in my early years growing up in Los Angeles. My mom probably wouldn’t describe it that way, but that’s the way I experienced it. I’m the youngest of three daughters, and we’re all so significantly spaced apart in age that by the time my middle sister went away to college, I still had several years left at home. My mom and I became adventure partners. We tried every type of cuisine, we took long walks through museums and sat through marathon theatre performances, we drove great distances to faraway festivals and gatherings. The city was our playground, and we took every advantage of it.
This elaborate itinerary building wasn’t, to my knowledge, part of any grand child-rearing scheme. As far as I know, my mom never set out to make me an artist, or a lover of the arts, or a foodie, or a traveler. She just took me along with her to experience things she was interested in. And luckily for both of us, they became things I was interested in, too. All the seeds she planted took root eagerly, and my personality and my own interests began to form and flourish. It may be no surprise to hear that I became an artist, and a lover of the arts, and a foodie, and a traveler, and many, many other things that resonate with her influence.
When I went back to Los Angeles recently to help my mom celebrate her 70th birthday, I schemed to take her back to one of the places she’d introduced me to decades before. The Huntington Library is a historic mansion-turned-museum, and the hundred odd acres surrounding the mansion have been turned into a series of mind-bendingly beautiful gardens. The last time we went to the Huntington must have been decades ago, back when my mom still drove her little white Ford hatchback. This time around we were car-free, which means the trip was a lot longer, but also, that much more rewarding.
We spent most of our day shuffling through the Desert Garden, which spreads and curves through 10 acres of spines, barbs, and branches. Places from childhood tend to feel smaller when revisited as an adult, but the Desert Garden felt exponentially bigger and even more impressive than I could have guessed. On a Monday afternoon, we had the garden mostly to ourselves, and the mockingbirds who screeched and chattered to each other from the tops of swaying, feathery yucca trees. With each turn of the path, the shapes and textures and colors blurred at the periphery, the dusty memories of walking these same trails years ago in perfect focus in the front of my mind. Our handful of hours at the Huntington reminded me of a lot, about where I’m from and the experiences that compounded to create the person I am today. But what stood out to me was the realization and the reminder that there’s no better company for a long, slow stroll among the plants than my mom.
The Huntington is located in San Marino, CA, a mainly residential corner of Pasadena, which is a lovely city northeast of Los Angeles. If you’re traveling there on public transportation, make sure you bring a book…or two. From the westside of Los Angeles, our trip took over 2 hours. But! It was a lovely ride, and I continue to be amazed with how robust public transit has become in L.A. since I moved away. However, I do have one word to the wise for train trippers – you should spring for the Lyft when you arrive at Allen Station. It won’t cost too much, and you’ll want to save your walking energy for when you get to the Gardens. Avoid Tuesdays (they’re closed), tickets are less expensive on weekdays and free on the first Thursday of every month. My only other tip – have fun, and bring someone who loves adventures as much as you do. If that person is your mom, even better.
I don’t often have the opportunity to go back to California, the state where I grew up and lived my first eighteen years. Flights are expensive, time off is scarce, and my wandering eye is always scanning the list of places I haven’t yet been. But my imagination and subconscious pull me back to the golden state often. Remembering the exact shade of firey orange I see from behind eyelids when my head is turned up to the wide, hot sun. Remembering the soft, rolling mountain ranges – cloaked in straw yellow in the fall, scrubby green in spring.
I had never been to the Marin Headlands before, but the sound of my shoes scuffing across gold gravel paths told a different story. The wide trail undulated beneath my legs, legs long retrained for the flat midwest, legs now unaccustomed to even minimal change in elevation. As the trail stretched out ahead of me, a long, winding ramp, it reminded me of what these legs are capable of. Of where these legs belong.
When we started our hike at the Tennessee Valley trailhead, it was late morning and the gray sky felt heavy. But by the time we caught our first glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, the sun had broken through the cloudcover, reflecting scattered white waves across the bay. The vast ocean, almost unbelievable in scale, unfolded indefinitely toward the horizon. It’s taut shimmer was only broken by the hard diagonals of the headlands. The ridges of land inhaled and exhaled, the chaparral growing in surges of green, the sun pulsing in the veins of the plants’ thin, waxy leaves.
The plunge to Pirates Cove began as stairs etched into the mountainside, and then quickly dissolved into a jumble of broken crag. Scrambling down to the beach, I held tight to each boulder, steadying myself against the earth before shuffling deeper toward the rocky surf. My legs shook involuntarily, already exhausted from the slow steady climb they’d endured, and now being thoroughly tested on the swift descent. But they carried me: past a trickling waterfall, spring runoff on its way to reuniting with the ocean; past native plants and opportunistic newcomers flowering just out of reach; past a mishmash of organic detritus, wooden bits washed up from a tumble in the sea; and finally, over the colony of smooth black stones that lined the curved, sandless cove.
Climbing back up to the trail, back to the sandy path that flexed against the hillside and down into the main valley, I felt held in place. Like the roots of the coastal shrubs holding together the headlands’ rocky soil, like the heavy mountains of earth hugging and holding the edges of the sea, I felt the elements that make up this familiar ecosystem pull me back into it’s tight grasp. The native sedges reached out and tickled my ankles. The giant windswept cypress trees sheltered the trail, catching the first few drops of rain before they could even think to reach my head. I poured myself into the bowl of the Tennessee Valley and felt welcomed, at ease, like I had rediscovered a place that felt like home.
Getting to the Tennessee Valley trailhead isn’t easy if you don’t have a car, but if you’re able to find a ride or carpool, you’ll enjoy a scenic trip over either the Richmond Bridge (coming from the East Bay) or the Golden Gate Bridge (coming from San Francisco). It’s a good idea to plan your arrival for earlier in the day, as the trailhead parking lot fills up quickly. Once on the trail, you can choose from a few different hikes. The main trail that leads to the lovely Tennessee Valley Beach is flat and family-friendly. The trail for Pirates Cove is less so, but was a rewarding challenge. If the tide is low and you’ve planned wisely and packed a lunch, you’ll be able to find a quiet spot to eat overlooking the crashing waves. If you didn’t bring a meal and feel ravenous when your hike is finished, head to Tamalpie in Mill Valley for delicious thin crust pizza.
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.
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.
Maybe it’s my negativity bias, the little voice inside my head that’s always nagging and needling, but when December pulled in, I worried that I hadn’t done enough, hadn’t seen enough, been enough places, written enough, put myself out there enough. The list goes on. What is it that holds so many of us hostage? That internal fear that who we are and what we’ve accomplished isn’t adequate – Where does it come from?
When I set out to start working on this year’s little review post, I wondered what I would find in my notes. Somehow, everything starts to get cloudy come year’s end, and when I squinted back toward my 2017, all I could see was soggy weather and unpleasant news headlines. Of course, that’s not all this year was. Actually, that’s not what this year was at all.
What we pay attention to becomes our reality. The more we focus on the negative, the more negative things will seem and the more negative we’ll feel about everything. The inverse, as you know, is also true. So thank goodness for my copious notes. Thank goodness for my robust calendar events that remind me what I did, where I went, who I spent time with, and what I made possible. A lot happened in 2017. Some of it was bad. But a great deal of it was wonderful. So because my life is built from the things I pay attention to, here’s where I choose to put my focus in these last days of the year. These are a few of my favorites from 2017.
Best way to start the new year: An Indian buffet and a sunny walk past public art
Best investment in myself: Classes to learn how to make make wheel-thrown ceramics
Best way to learn more about your neighborhood: Local alderman meetings (frustrating, but enlightening)
Best drink to sip on a sunny Sunday with friends: Tom Collins
Best live music experience: Moses Sumney
Best wildlife spotting: Thousands and thousands of black birds flying over Margo’s corn field
Best community building event: Boss Bitch Queens New Moon Vision Boarding
Best autumn leaf-peeping: Miami Woods in Morton Grove, IL
Best jazz series: The Bridge at the Logan Center for the Arts
Best two hours spent wandering a bookstore: Arcana Books In Culver City, CA
Best (unexpectedly gluten-free) breakfast: Honey Hi
Best vegan dinner: Stuff I Eat
Best vegan brioche bun: at the Butcher’s Daughter (for real, this thing changed my life)
Last weekend, I went down to Maryland to celebrate the wedding of two friends. The ceremony took place outside of Baltimore, fairly close to the airport, in a state park that felt worlds away. Between vows and white wine spritzers, rounds of cornhole and grilled veggie burgers, tears hidden behind sunglasses and bold belly laughs, we were able to sneak away and do a little exploring.
The overcast heat felt like summer, but the signs of early fall were creeping in. Crisped up bits of brown lined the walkways, and flutters of yellow drifted down from the tallest branches. Despite the passing of the autumn equinox, the entire park surged with energy. Giant slate boulders pushed through the earth. The Patapsco River churned slowly, feeding a bevy of lush, creekside plants. Unknown bird calls and freight train whistles echoed between the trees. We almost mistook a still, black snake for a petrified tree branch.
Inside the forest, along the Ridge Trail, the late afternoon light pooled in the thinning leaves. Fungus sprouted on fallen logs stretched out over pathways studded with rocks and roots. The elevation slowly began to rise, and being from the flat midwest, our unaccustomed feet struggled to maintain balance. Our special occasion footwear certainly didn’t help matters. But we pushed on.
At the farthest end of the Ridge Trail, we found Cascade Falls. The soft roar of rushing water reached our ears even in the parking lot, and after a short hike, we spotted the source. Beyond the rocky crag camouflaged with moss, behind the crowd of sun-shade trees, the white water splashed down into a shallow, gravely pool. Small groups of families climbed across the rocks to get a closer view of the falls, shutters clicked, voices carried clear through the soft, green valley.
As the sun began its descent below the tree line, we retraced our steps back to the trailhead and shuffled across the Swinging Bridge. A child’s heavy, joyful steps shook the bridge in its entirety – and I held onto the thick wound-wire railing to keep myself steady. At the center of the bridge, the valley dropped out below us and the view stopped us in our tracks. The wide river shimmered, mirroring the valley’s early evening light. Small groups of friends, families, fathers and sons, waded through the current below, their calls and shrieks lifting through the gaps in our wooden walkway.
Outside the park, reminders rang loud to make the most of the end of summer, to celebrate the long-awaited arrival of fall, to pull on those sweaters and dust off those boots. But here inside the park, time stood still. We all breathed the cooling air, and simply enjoyed what was.
Patapsco Valley State Park is one of the largest parks in Maryland, and sits about a 20 minute drive from downtown Baltimore. Driving is probably the easiest way to go, but you can definitely get there on public transportation, too. The 320 bus and the MARC Camden line both drop off close to the entrance to the park. No doubt that there are wonderful parks closer to the center of the city,
but if you’re in the mood for a getaway or camp-out, this may be your best, most beautiful bet.
We 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.
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.
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.