Urban Hiking Clear My Mind

(Graphic: Not the ‘L’: the paths of my daily urban hikes from downtown Chicago.)

I walk a lot. Not just to get from A to B, but also for the pleasure of it. Some people get in their cars and drive to clear their minds and think. Me, I put on my shoes, pick a direction, and start walking.

Since last spring, whenever it hasn’t been pouring or freezing, I’ve spent 75 to 90 minutes a day walking through and beyond downtown Chicago. I started just after the inaugural Looptopia weekend when Devyn and I broke up. I couldn’t really sit still at that point, anyway, so I figured I’d put my angst to a healthy use by using it to power my feet.

Now I walk for the wonder of it, to experience the many sights, sounds, and someones that you encounter on a walk through the capital of the middle of America.  I used to wear my headphones and listen to tunes as I walked.  Now I much prefer to listen to the sounds–and in special locations, silences–of the city as I pass through it.

The graphic above shows my favorite urban hikes.  You’ll note it covers an area about six miles long and four miles wide, so when I say I get around, I really mean it (when I made the graphic, I was a little stunned myself).  Here’s where each of these paths takes me, and why I find them so special:

Blue Hike To Belmont
This is the walk that saved my psyche last year. It began when I just wanted to see how far I could walk away from my problems after my breakup.  Belmont Avenue, as it turned out.  Four-and-a-half miles north (and slightly west) of Marina City.  I wanted to walk as close to the lake as possible (you, know, in case I wanted to throw myself in).  It was an unexpectedly inspiring idea.

Starting from my Marina City high-rise home at the north end of the State Street Bridge, I head through IBM Plaza and beneath the bays of Mies van der Rohe’s building of the same namesake.  Crossing Wabash, I cut through to Michigan Avenue via the walkway that separates the two halves of the Wrigley Building, and there I am in the retail heart of the Midwest.  Michigan Avenue has always reminded me of an amalgam of Manhattan throughfares.  I used to be put off by its lack of similarly bustling adjacent streets.  Now I welcome the juxtaposition as part of Chicago’s abiliy to better balance the density of its streets.

Tourists along Mag Mile have always been a challenge for me.  On the one hand, I’m glad for the bustle and the tax dollars, and I’m proud that my neighborhood is such a popular place to be.  But I also tend to want to control my environment, and easily get annoyed when I’m cut off by a family from Iowa pausing in front of me to take a picture.  The problem, of course, is my own–at its most crowded times, I see the avenue as a humbling learning experience for me.  Hypocritical as it makes me, I always stop and crane my neck up at the Hancock Center for a good, long gaze.

Then I turn my back to the city and concentrate on the stately old and (uglier) new high-rises that line inner Lake Shore Drive as Michigan Avenue feeds into the Drive at Oak Street.  Just like the famous view from the top of the Hancock, even from down here, I love the cliff of buildings on one side and the sheer openness of Lake Michigan on the other.  Past tony residents and, in summer, skimpily clad beach-goers, I continue to North Avenue.

Beyond North Avenue, I used to skirt Lincoln Park, heading up Clark Street past the History Museum, then up Lincoln Park West and Lakeview Avenue through the shaded edge gardens and play spaces the separate the park, proper, from the residential buildings to the west.  More often when I take this walk now, I head directly through the park. There’s a grassy field south of the South Pond, unbroken except for a huge, lone tree in the middle of it, that always reminds me of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.  I always pause on the bench at the South Pond, and watch the ducks, sitting with the memories of loves and friends I have shared the experience with before.

Eventually I make it to Diversey and Sheridan, the home stretch of my Belmont walk.  On a hot day, the A/C and rest rooms in the Elks Lodge behind the ugly fence at that corner can’t be beat.  I hoof it up Sheridan, through the southern leg of that street’s high-rise residential corridor that extends much further north than I’m walking.

After 90 minutes, I reach the Holy Grail: the big iron bench at the express bus stop at Sheridan and Belmont. I plotz, and take a 140-something back to the Loop.  My trip home takes a mere 15 minutes.  I spend the first five of them lost in the view of Lake Michigan as we speed down Lake Shore Drive.  I cannot count how many times I have walked this route.  It is the epitome of my personal experience of Chicago.

Red Hike to Astor
When warmer weather sprung this year, I yearned to get back to my walks.  But I wanted to find a route where I could come back home by foot power instead of the admittedly speedy express bus.  When I first moved to Chicago, I stayed with a friend who lived off of Astor Street, the historic residential district a block west of Lake Shore Drive in the Gold Coast.  The neighborhood always reminded me of Brownstone Brooklyn–stately old brownstone and graystone homes, Richardsonian Roamnesque façades, leafy streets, happy density to it all.

This year I made Astor Street the heart of what has become an almost daily–and usually nightly–three-mile constitutional (calling it a hike along Astor just doesn’t do the street justice).  I still head up Michigan and Lake Shore Drive.  But I cut in at Division and over to Astor.  From Division to North Avenue, Astor Street makes me feel like I’m back in Brooklyn, only without the hyperacticvity and aggressive ambivalence that can be part and parcel of my hometown.  Lately, the fireflies have been out.  In the evening, strolling by the Cardinal’s mansion, it’s been a bit of a lightshow above the lawns that surround the building.

At North Avenue, I head back to Lake Shore Drive and head back to Michigan Avenue, enjoying the view before me of Navy Pier and the Hancock towering above Streeterville.  It never fails to thrill me that this is my extended neighborhood.

Pink Hike to Ashland
This is the real suburban-to-urban homesteader tour.  Starting at State and Wacker, I follow Wacker west along the Chicago River through downtown’s quickly growing waterside skyline.  As Wacker curves south, the vista opens up to the offices and condo buildings in the West Loop on the other side of the river, with the Lake Street ‘L’ rumbling across from shore to shore.  I cross the river at Randolph and follow the string of splendind riverside plazas down to Madison.  Then I head west on Madison to Ashland.

This last mile-and-a-half is a Chicago that didn’t exist a decade ago: a regular progression of low-rise residential lofts and condos solidifying this allegedly monickered “West Loop Gate” neighborhood.  It’s quiet here–dead even, on the weekends.  The lack of din makes a nice change from the Loop.  But there’s only the Madison bus to get around, and every building has lots of parking.  I don’t blame these folks for driving.  The neighborhood is pleasant but isolated–not the Chicago I would choose to live in.  I hop on the Pink Line at Ashland and Lake or walk back the way I came.

Green Hike to Jackson
Other days, I start out walking west on Wacker along the river but I don’t turn onto Madison.  Instead, I stick with the riverside plazas, threading through the lounging office workers and folks waiting for their Metra trains.  I walk right alongside the railing, watching the tour boats glide below the bridges.  I walk slow and try to feel the flow of the river.

I head east again at Jackson, always pausing to admire the Sears Tower and other, newer buildings near this southwest corner of the Loop.  If I’m in a lively mood, I continue on to State, where day or evening I’ll join a bustle of people and head north back home to Marina City.  Otherwise, if it’s evening, I usually opt for a northward walk through the quieter plazas of Clark or Dearborn. I’ll pause at Randolph and soak up the marquee lights of the theater district and wonder when Block 37 will finally be finished.  Often I’ll head up to the Marina City roofdeck and ponder those lights from 550 feet above.  Usually, I’m up there for awhile.

Brown Hike to Adler
Some of the best solitude I’ve ever found downtown lives at the far end of Adler Planetarium. I head down State to Randolph and scurry east, past Michigan, as far as the Grant Park fieldhouse (the future location of the Chicago Children’s Museum). I like to get to the lakefront fast when I do this walk.  I cut through the park to the lakefront bike/ped trail.  Then I slow down and stroll, past bobbing boats, yelping gulls, and happily wandering tourists.  I imagine I’m walking along the lakefront on the western edge of Lisbon, heading for the Torre de Belém.  If only the snack stands in Grant Park sold Sagres beer and shrimp rissois, this would be heaven.

At the Shedd Aquarium, I turn left, sometimes along the bike path, sometimes in front of the Field Museum. I head all the way down Solidarity Drive and circle the planetarium.  There’s a magic spot on the grassy slope between the building and the bike path, below.  I sit just to the north of the tiny concrete observatory that separates the Adler from Lake Michigan. There, sounds are muffled by grass and the concrete walls of the little out-building.  Hidden from view of the bikepath and out of the way of the strollers on the walkway behind me, I gaze out at the lake and meditate.  This is one of the most calming experiences I know in Chicago.  For me, this one little patch of grass is holy.

I always walk back through the South Loop, to balance out the quiet with some happy commotion (making this walk as long as my Belmont hikes).  Unlike West Loop Gate, every time I’m down here, I know I could live here–and not just for the chopped chicken liver at 11 City Diner.  This is a real urban neighborhood, with transit, stores, restaurants, workers and students, real life.  I ponder the local rents as I head back to 300 North State.

* * *

Then again, sometimes the most magical moments happen when I have no agenda.  Around 8:00 p.m., after the work crowd has gone home and the Wicked crowd is already watching Galinda float above Oz, I like to meander through the Loop.  Down Clark, up Dearborn, through quiet plazas and sleepy side streets that offer more than enough solitude to counter any continuing bustle on State Street, I savor a Chicago seemingly with its pause button pressed.

It’s a Loop most downtown workers never explore.  It doesn’t last long.  As soon as the shows get out, it’s bedlam again, as visitors rush off to trains, off to cars, and off to bed.  Brief as it is, though, it’s almost as inspiring as the crack of dawn on a quiet Loop Sunday morning.  Full of a still but powerful energy, if you open to it, Chicago at these hours has a limitless quality to it, like all the unrealized potential in the world could happen, right here, at any moment.

It’s at these times when I remember most why I love this town.

(Get notified about new posts: Facebook Updates | Email Updates | RSS Updates)

13 Comments

What do you think?