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.
What places exist only as images in your mind, clipped, collaged, and disjointed? What once bright and vivid colors, now locked behind lowered lids, have yellowed and browned with age? What smells stick sour to the edges of your nostrils, even though you haven’t breathed them in in years? What ghostly textures tickle your palms, even now, decades later?
People say New Orleans is a haunted city, a city settled and buoyed by ever-wandering souls. When I’m there, the spirits I sense are those I know and knew: ghosts of my younger selves, and ghosts of my family, the ones still alive and the ones laughing, talking, cooking, forever in my memory. I used to spend a lot of time in New Orleans: every Christmas and at least one slow, heavy summer, when I passed my days lying on a blue bed in a blue room watching hornets outside build and buzz. In spite of the storm and the flood, that old house in New Orleans East still stands, as colorful and dignified as it was then, the rooms now rebuilt in perfect order inside my mind.
Then and now, in New Orleans: shimmering orange light bounces off the gulf, weaving through canals in the low-lying streets like neon warp and weft. Humid air wraps its thick arms around me, tucking me in tight, pushing against my skin, filling my lungs, slowing me down. Things cling — Spanish moss to live oak branches, mardi gras beads to iron railing, centuries of grime to wooden floorboards and victorian detailing, short shotgun houses to soft ground, ground that opened up beneath them before and surely will again.
I just spent a handful of too-short days back in New Orleans. My family was there with me, some in body and some in spirit, as they have always been. There are more words to be written about this place, to help me sort out and understand the hazy images and sounds in my memory. But for today, at least, this is a start.
Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting the past few weeks. With the end of the year in sight, I’ve been thinking of the things I’ve accomplished, the work I did, the people I met, the food I ate. I have a kind of insane habit of writing everything I do down. Yes, everything. I keep a highly detailed calendar, where every day of the year, I keep note of the places I go, the things I do, and the people I see. I have a pretty good memory regardless, but there are always the tiny moments that you forget: that certain coffee shop, the unexpected record store, the surprise six hour hang with a close friend. Keeping the calendar helps me hold onto it all.
Recently I pulled up my entries from 2016. Every month was filled with weird and wonderful experiences. 2016 was difficult, no doubt about that at all. Every day felt like a turning point, a door we weren’t always sure we wanted to walk through. But also, when going back through my calendar, I realized that 2016 was a year of beauty and strength and discovery. I feel grateful for what I’ve been able to do, see, try. I went on long walks in beautiful places. I ate incredible meals with kind, hilarious people. I refocused and accelerated.
There are many things I want to do next year, an ever-expanding list of goals to tick off. But before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to spend just a little more time thinking about 2016. So here are a handful of my favorite experiences from the year.
Best way to ring in the new year: at the Boston wedding of two dear friends
Best classic diner meal: Deluxe Station Diner, Newton Centre MA
Best alternative housing structure I sat in: a huge wooden teepee built along the path near Fresh Pond
Best family vacation: Los Angeles
Best cappuccino: Balconi
Best lunch: Superba
Best sunset hike: Ernest E. Deb’s Park in Highland Park
Best wine to drink three bottles of at Thanksgiving dinner: Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc
The former British poet laureate, Alfred Austin once said: “Show me your garden and I shall tell you who you are.” I agree that the state of one’s curated surroundings says volumes about that person: about what they value and what they don’t; about who they think they are or want to be. My indoor garden is a pretty clear reflection of who I am and what’s important to me. I used to think about opening up a store one day, a place that would be an extension of my home, the public face of my private identity. The dream of a store still flickers sometimes in my mind, often when I’m lingering in someone else’s.
I’m interested in the purpose of a store. I know they’re meant to provide customers with access to goods. But, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, shops are also places that feed the spirit. Have you ever gone into a store and never wanted to leave? Wished you could just live there forever? Remember the statistic that said some Anthropologie shoppers spend up to four hours there? A shopkeeper’s job includes sales, for sure, but also requires creating a space where people will feel comfortable, welcome, at ease. A place where they may be able to be shown, as Alfred Austin put it, who they are.
I recently found myself thinking back on the plant stores I wandered in and out of during my week in New York. On paper they’re pretty similar, but the experiences of pulling open heavy doors and coming inside, wandering aisles, investigating objects and considering purchases — all the tiny actions that amount to “shopping” — those experiences were all so different. These shop visits were an exercise in observation, in being aware of how a space can make me feel, and what it can teach me about myself as well as the person who stocked the shelves and opened the doors.
When you first walk into Sprout, there’s a bright orange wall against which a number of strange and beautifully shaped plants are displayed. I was drawn to it like a moth to the flame. There are colors everywhere you look in this shop, but its white-washed brick walls serve as a perfect backdrop and breathing space. There’s a Sprout location in Chicago, which is dark and sumptuous, but the Brooklyn Sprout is fresh, elegant, and radiant — like a young professional woman in a smart, white wool jumpsuit. The ceiling angles high overhead and is punctuated by cloudy old skylights. The walls are lined with bookcases full of neatly organized textiles, crystals, and gift items. My best friend and I smelled every single candle on display. I got lost in the tangle of plants crowding each wall and overflowing from each table.
Ideal for: fancy people, fine gift givers, event planners, tablescapers
A few years ago when I first heard about Green Fingers Market, I spent the better part of an afternoon doing a deep dive of the shop owner’s entire online portfolio. It was the first time I’d heard of “plant stylist” as a job and I became obsessed. Satoshi Kawamoto has a shop in Japan and this store here in Manhattan, which is nestled into a long, narrow storefront on a small city street. Looking into the store from the front door is like peeking into a lush jungle from the windshield of an off-road trekking vehicle. There’s a feeling that you’ll uncover something here that no one has ever seen before, some perfect display or never before seen species. The place is dripping with plantlife and antique bits and bobs: the result is layered and effortlessly stylish. Keep walking all the way to the back of the store for an embarrassment of vintage menswear and leather bags. If Sprout embodies a savvy young woman, Green Fingers is the perfect mirror of its owner: cool, classy, and masculine.
Ideal for: men who love plants, vintage denim collectors
I had never been to Boerum Hill before this excursion, and the neighborhood fully charmed me. It’s quintessential Brooklyn: tree-lined cobblestone streets, brownstones with front porch gardens, tiny cafes and independent shops nestled within residential blocks. And from strolling around the neighborhood, GRDN is as quaint and wonderful as you would expect. The shop itself is one small room lined with useful gardening tools, gifts, and large bags of potting medium — a great blend of functional and decorative objects. In the middle of the room sits a large table filled with vases of spectacular fresh flowers. But go out through the back door and you’ll enter a secret garden, the nursery area of the shop. It’s almost like time traveling to a backyard garden in London, complete with the antique pots, classic perennials, and gravel crunching under foot. You may find yourself wanting to wrap the whole store up and ship it back to wherever you live. I know I did.
Ideal for: daydreamers, fresh bouquet seekers, classy neighbors who just need a big bag of dirt
When it’s 90+ degrees out and humid, inside a hand-built greenhouse is maybe not the place you want to be. But it’s where we found ourselves the day I learned about Crest Hardware. This place is, as you may have ascertained, an actual hardware store, with rows of hammers and lightbulbs and heavy duty gloves and ceiling fans and all the other things you would expect to find at your local True Value. But if you follow the signs for the garden center, out back you’ll find a glorious green space packed with both flora and fauna. There’s a bird cage tucked in among the philodendrons, rows of succulents, stacks of terra cotta, and a large wooden pen in the open air garden space. This is where Franklin lives, the resident garden keeper, a potbelly pig. Crest is not fancy. It’s not overthought. You won’t feel like you’ll break anything if you turn around too quickly. And that’s where its magic comes from. It’s a space for regular people who want to bring more beauty into their lives. A noble pursuit, and an attainable one, even in the middle of New York City.
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)!
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.
Back in August I split town and spent a week in New York City. I stayed on the edge of Brooklyn and Queens and caught up with good friends, 99% of whom now live there. I wandered for miles through wild gardens, biked a surrey around Governors Island, lingered in the aisles of heavily air conditioned stores, drank delicious tiny coffees, and ate a bagel everyday.
With each small adventure, I felt myself growing fonder of this crazy place that had previously intimidated and overwhelmed me. I found the softer side of the city, the lush green underbelly that often gets overshadowed by miles of steel infrastructure and concrete facades. I felt tested and stretched, but I also felt welcomed and comfortable. The streets were walkable, the people were kind, and the food was fantastic. What more can I need?
I’ll have several more posts coming up about a few of the New York green spaces I fell in love with, but in the meantime, I’ve got some suggestions for your next trip to NYC. Check out the New York City Green City Guide and let me know if you have any favorites to add to my list!