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!
A few weeks ago we took a (long overdue) vacation to Asheville. This past winter wasn’t the harshest or the coldest, but the pull to go somewhere warm and green was still pretty strong. This beautiful mountain town in Western North Carolina was exactly what we were looking for. I’ve put down some of the spots we most enjoyed in the new Asheville Green City Guide. Check it out, and browse some of my other Green City Guides here!
It’s very cold here. Colder than it’s been in a long while. I don’t have any warm weather vacations on the horizon, so I let the memories of my last few trips to South Florida take me on a mental vacation. As it turns out, spending all day thinking and writing about a semi-tropical place is exactly the medicine my sun-starved, winter-ridden soul needed.
The result? The new Miami Green City Guide is now live! Take a look.
Another Green City Guide is now live! This past summer, I took a quick trip out to Colorado — and fell in love with it, just like everyone said I would. I’ve put some of my favorites together into a new city guide. Take a look: Green City Guide: Boulder & Denver
My Green City Guides are starting to trickle in — I figured I’d use the deep freeze that we’re finally sliding into to reminisce about the places and plants I’ve seen in the past recent while. Kicking things off with the one I know best, the Chicago Guide is now live.
I grew up in Los Angeles. Some things about the place I purposely left behind, and other memories eventually turned vague, replaced by new daily routines, new landmarks, new sights and sounds and smells. But a few details from my years in L.A., I carried with me.
There was the sun and the heat, in all their various incarnations; the sweltering interior of a car parked out under a cloudless sky, the sizzling red blaze of the sunset piercing through the windshield. I knew well the long lean of the afternoon sun as it slipped through the living room blinds, staining white plastered walls with deep orange stripes. Those same stripes turning blue in the evening, reflecting on passing cars and gliding across the stems and leaves of my mother’s houseplants.
I remember the manic landscape. Giant, smooth trunked trees with bright green canopies pruned into odd and fantastic shapes. Jacaranda flowers bursting bright violet and floating like confetti onto the wide boulevards. Miles of sidewalk littered with fallen ficus berries and spiky Sweetgum seedpods. Finding tiny succulents squeezing through cracks in the cement, and ripping dead and dried morning glory vines from balcony rails.
I remember the fourplex apartments dwarfed by giant, towering cacti, and yellowing snake plants sliced in half to show the plastic surgery advertisements behind them. The smell of desert dust and sweetgrass that rose in the cool air after sunset. The gravel crunch and the earthworms that only crawled above ground during the winter rain, turning the sidewalk into a writhing, glimmering minefield.
I remember the distance. How far from nature I felt in some parts of the city, where the only trees in sight were spindly palms, a million feet tall and too thin to offer more than a cruel strip of shade on the gum-stained sidewalk. How exposed I felt there. How giant the sky, and how lost and tiny I was beneath it. I remember straining my eyes toward the palm leaves, strands of green glittering in the harsh sun, reflecting the glare like wet glass. After nightfall, the same palms drummed out a soft sweeping when the warm Santa Ana winds blew, fronds brushing against each other, their echoes interspersed with the roar of traffic.
I grew up in Los Angeles, and last week I went back. In the short time I was there, the city showed me that it’s still vast and incomprehensible. It’s still a strange, jumbled grid of green and gray, an intricate puzzle of well-landscaped parking lots. The city wheezes, choking out hot, smoggy breaths, struggling to hold onto whatever water it can find, and to pump out whatever oil it can still generate.
And yet, it is still beautiful. During our trip, L.A. felt foreign, and just like home. My memories came rushing back to me. The looming San Gabriel mountains burned orange and pink at sunset. The lull and crash of the Pacific’s waves played familiar rhythms. I retraced the curve of ancient oak branches in sandy canyons. And my eyes followed the immense chain of brake lights, so many lanes wide, disappearing in the distance.
Los Angeles is a driving city, so to get up close and personal with the diverse plant population, plan some walking tours or hikes. For this trip, we hiked from the Griffith Park Ferndell up to the Observatory and wandered around the canals in Venice. The Huntington Library and Gardens in nearby Pasadena is a plant lover’s paradise, but know that it’s closed on Tuesdays. For food, definitely go to Sqirl (if there’s a line, just go get in it — it moves quickly and your meal will be worth the wait), and add Cafe Gratitude to your list (the all vegan menu looks pretty crunchy, but is so flavorful and so satisfying). Also, say hi to my Mom if you pass by. Her house is the one with all the plants on the front porch.
About halfway between Chicago and the Iowa state line, the reliably flat topography of Illinois makes a dramatic shift. Here you’ll find the dells. These great canyons formed when glacial pressure overpowered the surrounding limestone and sandstone, piercing through the earth to make way for flora, fauna, and eventually watersport enthusiasts. Nestled beneath the broad, blue Illinois River, the geology of Matthiessen State Park rolls and juts and spikes and pools before arching clear overhead, its basic elements proudly on display. Wood, water, earth. Calcium, iron, carbon.
The hike into the park offers your typical Illinois vegetation: hackberry and pin oak trees, clumps of goldenrod and ironweed. When the winding path stops short, you’ll see the gap. From the canyon rim, your eyes will trick you. You’ll think the floor below is close, a reasonable, respectful, Midwestern distance. You’ll think the felled trees are thin, new growth and the scattered rocks, stepping stones.
But then you’ll see people down below, humans made minuscule by distance and perspective. Bodies dwarfed by the rock walls, their voices carrying through the cavern, amplified by bowed basalt. In the valley, the stone changes color from gorge to gorge, sandy beige and deep umber at Cedar Point give way to silver and scarlet in the Devil’s Paint Box. Liverworts, mosses, and bracken ferns cling to the shady side of the canyon while the crisp fall sun pushes slender tree trunk shadows against the rough ridge.
Just across Route 71 is the more popular Starved Rock State Park. Familiar and foreign in the lay of its land, wooded forests line steep yellow cliffs while shallow creeks wind through stark gray gulches. At the top of a long bluff stands Council Overhang, a geological outcropping that looks to have more in common with the moon than with the nearby prairie. Its great mouth yawns and hovers wide around us, the sandstone threatening to chomp closed in a few thousand years.
Curve around the bend and forge a few more stream crossings until you hear rushing water. At Ottawa Falls, the last of spring’s runoff cascades into a deep pool, mushrooms cling to dormant tree trunks, and names of wayward hikers are etched deep into sandy crag. The late afternoon light glows yellow in these hidden corridors, catching in thin-veined leaves, and reflecting off the grooved walls above.
These parks are magical in their incongruity, in their perfect strangeness within the greater context of the local landscape. This is an otherworldly place where farmland brushes right up against rocky ledge and canyon. An area that forces you to imagine its tense and fitful creation when ravines were violently carved from glacial rock and cliffs were blasted free from bluff.
After dinner at the lodge paired with pints of Starved Rock Signature Ale, our group began the two hour journey back to Chicago. We watched the hot, orange sun dip and then drop below the treeline, taking our day at the dells with it. The van pushed forward, back to flat land, back to the city.
Matthiessen State Park and Starved Rock State Park are located a few minutes from each other in North Central Illinois. Instead of renting a car for the journey, I traveled to and through the parks with the REI Outdoor School. They provided transportation, food, and trail guidance for the full day. This post was not sponsored, I just loved the trip and would gladly recommend it to others.