Walking through Welles Park

Tree in Welles Park, Chicago Illinois

At one of my previous jobs, when I needed to escape I would cross the street and go to the bookstore. My boss and I would sometimes claim we went there to do research, or tell each other we were going to refresh and be inspired. More often than not, we were just going there to get away. When the cubicle walls felt too close, the fluorescent lights too harsh, the coworkers too demanding or out of touch, there was the bookstore.

I eventually left that job and, soon after, that bookstore went out of business. But the need to escape remains. So I walk through the park. I usually do it in the morning, when I’m feeling hopeful and there’s still some brightness in the sky. Some days I do it in the late afternoon when the minutes are moving at half their usual speed and the sun, hidden behind thick cloud cover, speeds toward the horizon. I do the walk everyday, and I let the shadows and colors and textures distract me. It’s not always pretty, but it’s always there, and it’s always changing.

The ground in Welles Park, Chicago Illinois / Darker than Green

On the coldest days, the ground is as hard as pavement, indistinguishable from sidewalk or igneous rock. It’s a quiet trek, occasionally sprinkled with the darting eyes and hurried hellos of passing strangers. The abrasive rhythm of snow crunching underfoot crowds out the motorized whizz of cars and the hiss of the kneeling Montrose bus. Cloudy rings of bright blue ice gleam, surrounded by thinned patches of yellowing grass.

When a thaw moves in, solid ground that’s pitched and angled from last week’s frozen footsteps starts to give again. Tiny chunks of dirt and slush clump and creak beneath heavy steps. Bunches of shredded leaves huddle near wide tree trunks, the weak brown shards crushed flat under the speckled sun. The great green gazebo spreads wide its shadow over broad drifts of snow.

As the weather turns briefly, blindly toward spring, the field becomes an obstacle course. The rain comes, the ground swells with water, and the dirt puffs up into mud. Animals return to drink, and search for food. I tread lightly over rooted sod, careful not to step too hard and twist it clean from the earth. Floor-bound nests of fallen twigs support my weight and keep me from sinking ankle deep into black sludge, my rubber soles sucking against the wet earth with each step.

And the next day, the freeze returns. The melt, once again, hardened into solid crystal.

Instead of thinking about the cubicle walls or the fluorescent lights, these walks keep me in real time, reacting with and against the landscape. I’m learning why some people hike the same trails year after year, this small stretch of public park as my teacher. Even near a tangle of busy intersections, among the roar of traffic and constant construction, I can hear the earth breathe. I can see it sigh.

One day soon, we’ll turn toward the sun and the land will open up to welcome a new season. It will push up new sprouts and nurture them on their way to becoming great trees. It will embrace the eager picnickers who rest in new grass and pull corks from chilled green bottles of white. But the park, even in winter, shows me something new. It shows me that change doesn’t have to wait until spring. I walk by it everyday.

Grass and snow, Welles Park, Chicago Illinois

Welles Park is a big, beautiful park located in Lincoln Square on the northwest side of the city. Summer brings giant, lush fields (often filled with hundreds of summer camp kids). In winter, it’s much emptier and the perfect place for quiet and contemplation. It’s well worth a visit any time of year.


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