The first thing I saw when I entered Union Station around 12:30 pm on a Sunday was a bride, alone at the top of a white marble staircase, dressed in a sleeveless white dress, holding a bouquet and waiting expectantly. We exchanged smiles through our eyes since I was wearing a mask. This was not what I expected on the Wolverine Amtrak train from Chicago to Detroit (or in my case, Dearborn in suburban Detroit.) I’ve always wanted to ride this train. I love trains, so here I am. For five hours on a cold, grey, damp day with the occasional snow flake.
Very comfortable seats and all seats taken. My only complaint is very dirty window so it’s hard to see beyond it. Also makes a grey gloomy day even greyer and gloomier.
Apparently for a fee, you can have your wedding photos taken in the grand lobby of Union station, which is what was happening when I arrived, and for a presumably higher fee, you can have your wedding there.
We didn’t do much of tourism note, beyond hang out with our grandsons and their parents. But we did have a good diner-type lunch/brunch (tuna melt, but, Greek omelette) at 3rd Coast, a somewhat hidden neighborhood hangout near my aunt’s on the Gold Coast that somehow I’ve never heard of in the 35 years or so that I have been visiting her.
We also had excellent takeout Szechwan Chinese food from ChengduImpression, in Lincoln park (I think) which made me think of a friend who grew up in that city and still lives there so I sent her greetings and a photo of the restaurant via WhatsApp, which she got a kick out of. And we picked up a sandwich (dolce di Parma) to go Andersonville at Pianto Pronto
We are still in Pandemic dining mode — eating outside — and Parsons Fried chicken completely fit the bill on a Saturday night in Chicago. We went to the new (l think) location in Andersonville early, around 6 pm and the place was still busy enough for a 45 minute wait but no problem. It was a lovely Summerish-fall night so we sat on benches on the huge patio and had some drinks before what turned out to be excellent very crispy and not greasy or undercooked fried chicken (hot wasn’t too hot and there was also not-hot). Excellent hush puppies too and apparently slushy alcohol drinks (which we didn’t know about at the time.) The place was also refreshingly affordable.
Lovely fall getaway, meeting the Chicago branch of our family (15-month-old grandson Linus and parents) in the old river town of Galena in northwest Illinois. Galena proved a perfect near-middle meeting spot between Chicago and us in Des Moines, a three/three and a half hour drive for each. We didn’t realize how hilly and bucolic this corner of Illinois is, but learned it is Illinois’s only county in the Midwest’s 4-state Driftless Area, so named because the land-flattening glacier didn’t pass through during the Ice Age, therefore not leaving behind “drift,” i.e. glacial deposits or smashed down the rolling landscape. The Driftless moniker never sounds right to us.) The area looks like nearby southwest Wisconsin to the north and northeast Iowa to the west, with high ridges overlooking forests, river valleys, waterfalls and streams.
We stayed close to our Airbnb, given the pandemic, cooking and eating in our cozy 2-bedroom townhouse-ish dwelling in “Galena Territory,” a vast resort development fashioned out of rolling hills dotted with farms outside town. It was tastefully done, meaning not over done, with small clusters of earth-colored contemporary housing scattered in woods and valleys, here and there.
On Saturday morning we strolled down Galena’s Main Street, which is lined with well-preserved 19th-century red brick buildings with restaurants and enticing shops. (Not as many antique stores as when we were last there 30 years ago. More upscale home decor and fancy food shops.). Given the pandemic we entered only one store, an excellent kitchen store, The Grateful Gourmet, and got coffee, hot cider and pumpkin donuts at a cute cafe, the Trolley Depot, where we sat outside, on a chilly but sunny day. Everyone wore masks, which we greatly appreciated. When we return I’d like to visit some of the grand old historic homes, including President Grant’s . There’s also a branch of the Chicago Atheneum, a design/architecture museum. Next trip we’d also like to go to the classic looking supper club we passed in East Dubuque, Illinois, which is perched high above the Mississippi,
On the way out of town, we stopped briefly at Terrapin Orchards in Elizabeth, Illinois for apples. Linus loved the sweet little play area fashioned out of an old Cat bulldozer whose scoop was filled with field corn kernels and tonka toy trucks. Paradise for a little boy (or girl). Then we parted ways, with the Chicagoans heading southeast and us Iowans heading southwest.
We drove the scenic route along the Great River Road through the old worn Mississippi River towns of Hanover and Savanna, past Mississippi palisadesstate park, with its high wooded bluffs. In Savanna, we stopped at Fritz’sFinds, a funky junk/antique shop in an old brick opera house with stained glass windows. To our surprise we had pass through a dark bar to get to the few rooms with junk. We didn’t linger, given the pandemic, but it was odd to be in a bar where people sat shoulder to shoulder mask-less at the bar and at a few tables, listening to a 6-piece band. Wish we could have stayed. The band was good and made me miss live music all the more.
Within walking distance of the trendy Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz, this tiny park normally draws crowds for art classes and Friday wine tastings. But now visitors come for ambles around the landscape and architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s first and only L.A. opus, Hollyhock House, commissioned in the 1920s by oil heiress Aline Barnsdall. In 2019 the home and seven other Wright-designed buildings in the United States were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Step into history and nature on these surprising summertime strolls in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.
IN A SPRING and summer of coronavirus lockdowns and travel slowdowns, our usual modes of escape—planes, trains, cruise ships—have become fraught with health, ethical, and even legal perils. Suddenly, flying to see relatives in Arizona or Amsterdam or hopping a train to New York City for the weekend have become major life choices instead of simple vacation whims. And many types of trips (cruises, vacations to Europe for Americans) aren’t even possible during this Summer of Corona.
It’s no wonder that people from Paris to Pittsburgh have turned to their own two feet—and places in their own backyards—to get out and see the world. In the U.S., depending on where you live, that might mean hiking in a nearby state park, running on a local beach, or just strolling through deserted downtowns.
Still, with so many people getting outdoors, many popular paths and parks are overrun. These writers, in three cities across America, found unusual, less-traveled places to walk. Here’s how they got out of the house—and out of their heads.
Steep, secret staircases in Los Angeles
An introvert, I welcomed the stillness of quarantine. Yet, after months of being homebound with my sweet-tempered cat in Long Beach, California, I missed the outdoors. Apparently, so did thousands of equally stir-crazy Angelenos who, once spring stay-at-home orders lifted, poured out onto beach paths and hiking trails.
It was hard to avoid crowds, but I had an ace up my sweatshirt sleeves. All over Los Angeles, cement or wood outdoor stairways are sandwiched between apartment complexes and tucked away in unassuming neighborhoods. Dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, these pedestrian byways were incorporated into new residential developments built around light-rail lines and trolley systems.
“The stairs were erected when the city started expanding into the hilly neighborhoods of Echo Park, Silver Lake, Mount Washington, and Highland Park,” says Charles Fleming, who wrote the book Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles. “People moving into the hills often didn’t have cars, so, they needed an efficient way to get down to the Pacific Electric Railway trolley system, the markets, and the schools.”
While the trolleys were dismantled in the ’40s and ’50s, the stairs remained. Fleming’s book documents more than 275 of them, each with distinct views and quirks. In hip Silver Lake, where street art flourishes, the Murray Stairway is painted to resemble piano keys and the Micheltorena Stairs bear rainbow stripes. Nearby, The Music Box Stairs and Three Stooges Stairs have silver-screen pasts: starring roles in Laurel and Hardy’s 1932 Music Box and the Stooges’ 1941 An Ache in Every Stake, respectively. Both movies feature the hijinks of delivering heavy objects—a piano and blocks of ice—up the outlandishly steep steps.
One morning during quarantine, I headed to one of the oldest—and most challenging—set of stairs in the city. The view from the bottom of the Eldred Street Stairs alarmed me with its 33.3 grade, which rises and dips like a roller-coaster track. Located in Los Angeles’s Mount Washington neighborhood, it’s the steepest street in California, beating San Francisco’s famed Filbert Street by 1.8 percent.
I took a deep breath and started climbing, my movements comically slow as I steadily gained 219 feet in elevation during the short 0.1-mile hike to the top. Sweat trickled down my forehead, and I had to take frequent breaks to catch my breath. I spied 1920s Craftsman bungalows, preposterously built along the hill. How did early inhabitants drive up to their garages, presumably in Model Ts? The street felt nearly vertical.
The journey was likely even more arduous for residents on Cross Avenue, who had to scale an additional 196 steps up a wooden staircase past the peak of Eldred Street to get home. At the bottom of the Eldred Stairs, legs quivering, I considered turning back. But the mystery of the foliage-shrouded climb ahead beckoned.
Ascending the deserted stairs felt like stepping into the past. I imagined some silent film hero tipping his straw boater hat as I passed. But I was alone, joined only by Monarch butterflies and playful sparrows who darted among the blue morning glories and overgrown weeds peeking through the stair railings.
I finally reached the top, popping out onto a narrow residential street with a scenic overlook. I soaked in the cool breeze, plus spectacular views of craggy Mount Baldy and the San Gabriel Mountains. I was done for the day, but that first outing inspired me to conquer other climbs: the Mattachine Steps in Silver Lake, dedicated to Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest LGBTQ rights group in the U.S. Next on my list: an Echo Park trek that leads to Angelino Heights, a late 19th-century neighborhood dotted with Victorian and Queen Anne mansions that seem popped out of a storybook.
During the pandemic, I’ve dreamt of time traveling to life after the crisis or to the glorious before times. Venturing up these old stairways is, in a way, like journeying into a bygone Los Angeles. It’s been just the escape I needed. —Rachel Ng
Down by the river in Chicago
Ordinarily, the glassy expanse of Chicago’s Lake Michigan attracts both photo ops and crowds of people who walk, bike, run, or sun themselves along the shore. But when this spring’s COVID-19 shutdowns closed the lakefront, I found a different watery escape: strolling the connected parks and paths along the North Branch of the Chicago River.
The multi-forked, 156-mile river winds from Lake Michigan through a series of other waterways that finally connect with the Mississippi River. Historically, the Chicago River has been a route for both indigenous people and European settlers, allowing Chicago to flourish as a major industrial city. But for me, during this pandemic, trails along the river have transformed into a secret world where I can get my nose out of my phone and into nature. Well, at least for a couple of miles a couple of times a week.
All it takes to get to my hideaway? A quick turn into what I think of as my personal portal: a cut in the railing of the Belmont Avenue Bridge near my home in the Avondale neighborhood. Just west of Western Avenue, I leave the busy road and zigzag down a concrete ramp to the meandering asphalt trail along the river.
The murky green water to my left, I walk through a thicket of trees and step inside a corner of Richard Clark Park called The Garden. Even during the pandemic, this hidden dirt-bike park was semi full of excited kids whooping and whipping their wheels over multiple mounds of soil, twisting and turning in an exhilarating escape from confinement. My 12-year-old nephew was often among them.
In the Garden, happy screams echo through the trees, a diversion from my doomscrolling on Twitter before I continue on my walks. And the land the bikes roll on has a long history of fun: it’s the site of the former Riverview Park. The legendary amusement park operated wooden roller coasters and toboggan rides from 1904 to 1967 under the slogan “laugh your troubles away.”
As I walk north on the trail, a contemporary grey stone building rises like a series of undulating waves. It’s the WMS Boathouse, designed by local architectural star Jeanne Gang, opened in 2013 as part of the city’s ongoing efforts to revitalize the riverfront. Gang used her trademark crisp engineering and green infrastructure elements (rain gardens, porous concrete that helps store and filter river water) to make a structure that’s both a design and environmental win.
RELATED: GARDEN CEMETERIES WERE AMONG AMERICA’S FIRST URBAN PARKS
GREEN-WOOD, NEW YORK CITY
Founded in 1838 as one of America’s first garden cemeteries, Green-Wood later inspired the creation of Central and Prospect Parks. In its early days, it was a major national tourist attraction
… Read MorePHOTOGRAPH BY TODD HEISLER, THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX
SPRING GROVE CEMETERY, CINCINNATI
A recurrent cholera epidemic motivated the Cincinnati Horticultural Society to create Spring Grove Cemetery in 1844. Inspired by garden cemeteries both in Paris and along the East
… Read MorePHOTOGRAPH BY MEDLEY OF PHOTOGRAPHY, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
EVERGREEN CEMETERY, PORTLAND (ME)
One of Portland’s largest publicly owned open spaces, the 239-acre Evergreen Cemetery is renowned for its wooded hiking trails and peaceful ponds. Points of interest include an Egyptian revival–style tomb, a mausoleum styled after a Greek temple, and an English Gothic revival chapel.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANITA DELIMONT, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
LAUREL HILL CEMETERY, PHILADELPHIA
Fed up with the crowded state of Philadelphia’s church graveyards, a Quaker helped establish Laurel Hill on a former estate north of the city. With scenic views of the Schuylkill River and
… Read MorePHOTOGRAPH BY LITTLE NY, GETTY IMAGES
MOUNTAIN VIEW CEMETERY, OAKLAND
Renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted drew inspiration from Parisian monuments, English gardens, and American Transcendentalism when designing this 223-acre
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BONAVENTURE CEMETERY, SAVANNAH
With its centuries-old gravestones tucked beneath live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, it’s no wonder Bonaventure is hailed as one of Savannah’s highlights. Made more famous by
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CONGRESSIONAL CEMETERY, WASHINGTON, D.C.
Fifty years before Arlington National Cemetery was created, Congressional Cemetery became America’s first national burial ground. Situated in Capitol Hill, it was the chosen resting
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HOLLYWOOD FOREVER CEMETERY, LOS ANGELES
Home to Hollywood luminaries including Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood Forever has been a cultural center in Los Angeles since its gates opened in
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GLENWOOD CEMETERY, HOUSTON
Designed around several ravines leading to Buffalo Bayou, Glenwood Cemetery offers a unique, rolling landscape in the midst of sprawling Houston. Though built in a rural section of the city in 1872, it now sits in the heart of Houston with impressive vistas of the skyline.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JON SHAPLEY, HOUSTON CHRONICLE/AP IMAGES
OAKLAND CEMETERY, ATLANTA
What began in 1850 as a modest, six-acre burial ground for the young town of Atlanta has grown into a 48-acre historical highlight in the city. Oakland fell into a period of disrepair in
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In other summers, I’d rent a canoe outside the boathouse, or peek inside at the rowers who train here. Though the building is quiet this year (rentals and programs are on hold for now), the structure’s serene, zigzaggy roof still soothes me, a reminder that tough times, like flowing water, eventually move on.
Just beyond, my running shoes hit Riverview Bridge, a new concrete path that gently climbs 18 feet above the river. The slither of concrete with rusty steel tooth-like railings is popular with runners and bikers. Me, I slow down to a saunter high above the water, surveying the tops of surrounding trees, imagining I’m far from home before I turn around.
The bridge connects to an old path in California Park, where it ends. For now, at least. Work is underway for more legs of what urban planners aim to make one contiguous river trail. In these long, repetitive days, even small developments—like an extension of my secret world—feel like hope. —Kate Silver
Graveyard rambles in Washington, D.C.
During the pandemic, I‘ve been strolling amid hundreds of people, none of them wearing masks. But don’t COVID shame me: they’re all buried six feet under in historic Washington, D.C. cemeteries, so I’m not worried about social distancing.
My adopted hometown is famously rich in green spaces—Rock Creek Park, a ribbon of grass, trees, and water; the monument- and museum-studded National Mall. But during months of lockdown, my usual paths were jammed with runners and walkers, many unmasked and going about their sweaty, potentially germ-spreading business like it was 2019.
So my husband Callan and I retreated to cemeteries for walks that were often, well, deathly quiet. Our ambles started in March in Glenwood Cemetery, a still-active burial ground in the northeast quadrant of the city near Catholic University.
We came seeking exercise and a look at the grave of Reginald Wycliffe Geare, an early 20th-century architect infamous locally for designing D.C.’s Knickerbocker Theatre. It collapsed in a blizzard in 1922, killing 98 people. Geare also drew up the plans for our 1920 townhouse, which seems to weather storms OK, so we wanted to pay tribute.
On laps around Glenwood’s rolling acerage, Callan and I discovered more than Geare’s simple, flat stone. In spring, cotton candy-pink cherry blossoms backdropped weathered, grouchy stone cherubs. On Memorial Day, we witnessed a funeral procession where brightly dressed mourners on motorcycles provided a bittersweet foil to the dark hearse they followed.
Each time we dropped by, greeted by a swarm of life-sized, trumpet-playing stone angels, we’d discover more evidence of life and death’s rich pageant: a clutch of early 20th-century Greek immigrants in a family plot; recent, silk flower-decked tombstones engraved with Ethiopian surnames, a sign of D.C.’s large immigrant population. And just last week, my genealogist husband discovered two distant relatives were interred there under an expansive elm, an Ancestry.com data point made real.
I cop to morbidly scanning headstones for 1918 or 1919 passings (Spanish flu?). But I mostly consider these strolls a pleasant revival of the 19th-century cemetery movement holding that graveyards should be like public parks, gathering places where well-dressed Victorian crowds held picnics, concerts, or even horse races.
“Back then, if you had distinguished out-of-town guests, you’d take them to see the gravesites of local worthies and show off the sculptures,” says Keith Eggener, a graveyard historian, architecture professor at the University of Oregon, and author of the book Cemeteries. “They became so popular, people started to lead tours of them and write guidebooks.”
Those boneyard guides would’ve had a lot to talk about at the Georgetown nabe’s shaded, creek-side Oak Hill Cemetery, which I turned to for one-on-one, six-feet-apart strolls with girlfriends as D.C. rolled from crisp spring to boggy, hot summer. Amid tombs dating back to the 1850s, the steep stone steps and winding paths worked out both my calves and sense of mortality.
Civil war officers, sea captains, and other notables are buried amid the towering oaks. Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie’s body was temporarily interred here in a cliffside masoleum in 1862, inspiring George Saunders’ recent graveyard novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. And legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s remains are entombed here behind a metal sculpture of a tree.
One June day, as I turned to leave the graveyard, I saw a spotted baby deer peeking out from behind a grizzled Victorian gravestone, all bright eyes and shaky legs. The lush, secluded surroundings seemed to make Bambi—like me—feel very alive indeed. —Jennifer Barger
Los Angeles-based writer Rachel Ng hopes to be fit enough to walk the Great Wall of China someday. Follow her on Instagram.
Kate Silver is a Chicago-based travel, business, and health writer—and walking enthusiast. Follow her on Instagram.
Wow, it’s 63 degrees and sunny on Christmas Day in Chicago. Perfect for a walk along the 606/Bloomingdale trail, Chicago’s answer to NYC’s High Line. Much less crowded and a little less refined. Not as much public art or enterprise, which is fine. We walked above some gentrifying neighborhoods west and north of downtown, starting in Wicker Park/Bucktown and then west to Logan square and Humboldt Park. There was a respectable trickle of people, many walking dogs or with little kids, a few bike riders and runners including one shirtless guy and a tank topped woman. (Again, this is Chicago in late December!)
Last night, on Christmas Eve, we joined a lively crowd at Imperial lamian, a Chinese restaurant downtown for dinner. The food (ribs, noodles, a fun dessert that looks like a giant ostrich egg and dissolves into cake and ice cream when hot fudge is poured over it) was good, nothing amazing but it was a fun scene and perfect for the occasion. We also took in the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Art Institute, which was more interesting than expected.
(Posted a few days late) We are in Chicago yet again to see our new grandson Linus, now 3 weeks old. We haven’t done much beyond what we came to do, which is to hold Linus and stare at him in wonder.
En route, we stayed in the lovely Mississippi River town of LeClaire, Iowa and the unlovely Super 8 (lumpy pillows, a noisy portable frig that was loud enough to keep me up). In Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, home to Linus and parents, we went on walks with and with our baby and pugs and E&R, stopping once briefly at the Helix Cafe on Clark, with a big used bookstore next door.
Thanks to the NYTimes listings, I know what’s on my to-see list during trips East, West and North this year.
In LA – Betye Saar: The Legends of “Black Girl’s Window” – LACMA Sept. 22-April 5.
In Chicago – Photography + Folk Art: Looking for american in the 1930s: Art Institute of Chicago Sept. 21-Jan. 19, 2020 ….In a cloud, in a wall, in a chair: Six modernists in Mexico at Mid Century (thru Jan. 12)
In Minneapolis: Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall – at Walker Art Center thru Jan. 12.
In Bentonville, Ark — The Momentary, which appears to be an outpost of the fabulous Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
In NYC: Kenyan-American Artist Wangechi Mutu’s sculptures at the MET – the first-ever art commission for the museum’s Fifth Avenue facade niches (her “Water Woman” sculpture at the Des Moines Art Center is a bit hit with the fourth-graders I take on tours) ; also on my list: the Amy Sherald show (she of the Michelle Obama portrait)…
The clear highlight of Labor Day weekend here in Chicago was meeting our sweet new grandson Linus Paul, born on Aug. 28, 2019 at Northwestern Hospital, 8.2 pounds, 22 inches and lovely. We met him and his mom and dad in the Prentis Women’s Hospital, maternity ward or whatever it is called these days. They had a spacious room with a dazzling view of Lake Michigan.
When we were not holding and staring in wonder at Linus, we walked around the city and ate a meal or two, including two chosen for their proximity to the hospital – – Cafecito, an offshoot of a Cuban restaurant we really like downtown and had no idea had offshoots, let alone one near to Michigan Avenue, and Francesca’s, across the street from cafecito, where we had excellent celebratory pasta with Aunt Mary Ann. We had excellent Indian food from Heema’s on Devon Street, takeout style with the new babe and parents and Uncle Noah. The lake was very full, with crashing waves and water gobbling up the concrete shore near Oak Street Beach. Now we are driving home and no doubt will be back soon to see the babe.
Made it to some new (in cases also very old) Andersonville, with Rocket and Emma as our helpful local guides. At Simon’s, a Swedish dive bar opened in 1934 on Clark Street, I had a sip of Rocket’s warm glogg, swerved with a thin Swedish ginger snap. It tasted deceptively sweet and pleasant but I am told has enough alcohol to knock your socks off so I stuck with alcohol cider. We snagged a spot on the couch in the mini living room at the end of the bar, complete with a fake roaring fire in the brick fireplace and vintage photos of simon’s in days past. This is my second dive bar visit in a week (Carl’s in dsm as last week) and I am beginning to get the draw. The place was fairly quiet and seemed like a bunch of regulars at the counter, enjoying each other’s company and some booze.
The Des Moines-based Raygun, world famous for its snarky t-shirt commentary on Iowa, the Midwest, presidential politics and more, has opened its first Chicago outpost, conveniently for me in Andersonville, walking distance from our kids’ apartment in Edgewater. The lovely young woman who runs it is someone we have known since she went to grade school with our kids so I made sure to drop by and say hi and buy something.
We were so busy talking that I didn’t really get to look at the Chicago merchandise in particular but saw a few classic raygun witticisms, bouncing off the political news. Also saw a coaster I had to buy (see photo above) that speaks to a very particular population…including us, — people in Des Moines debating whether to move to Chicago.