Flatness and Frozen Falls: Finding Beauty in Illinois

Scientists determined last year that Illinois is the second flattest state in the United States. Florida is the flattest. But before you go throwing them a pity party, let’s not forget that Florida has the ocean and lots of coastline to go with it. It has the Everglades and the Keys. It has alligators and manatees. So, flat? Yes. Devoid of interesting and pretty nature-y things? Hardly.

In Illinois, on the other hand, we’ll accept your pity readily. Not only are we so very flat, but we also tolerate superlatively meager natural wonders. Of the state’s nearly 58,000 square miles, only 430 or so are set aside for public use (and state parks, forests, and conservation areas). That’s less than one percent.

So what can we count among Illinois’ natural treasures? There are a few things. For one, we can claim a tiny stretch of Lake Michigan as our own. But if you are looking to escape to the wilderness, then the populated shoreline hardly counts.

A 5- or 6-hour drive with a steady view of corn and soy would bring us to the state’s southern tip, where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers converge. There we’d find some lovely rocky bluffs and rolling hills and the only significant splotches of green on the map. But it’s not quite enough to draw people from the Chicago metropolitan area, where over 75% of Illinoisans live.

For those of us who grew up in or around Chicago–that is to say, most Illinoisans—Starved Rock State Park is going to be the place that springs to mind when asked about Illinois’ great outdoors. Less than 2 hours from the city, it’s an easy choice when in need of some fresh air and topographic variety. According to the park’s lodge, the place is Illinois’ number-one attraction. (Though they don’t say according to whom.)

This past weekend was my first visit in the winter. In truth, it was my first visit at all since childhood. And for a moment, I will stop turning up my nose at my plain state (pun completely intended and I’m not sorry) and admit that I had a nice time.

Lover’s Leap Overlook

The park is a series of sandstone bluffs and glacial canyons that hug a few miles of the Illinois River.

Looking down on the Illinois River from Eagle Cliff Overlook

Waterfalls can form in all of the 18 canyons in the spring, and a series of well-marked trails allow for easy access for hikers of any skill level.

In winter many of the waterfalls freeze, and hikers can slip and slide right up to their bases, and in some cases, walk behind them. Ice climbers set up at a couple of the taller falls, as well.

LaSalle Canyon

French Canyon

Eagles migrate through the area in winter, as well, so there’s a good chance of spotting them from the top of Starved Rock, a tall bluff on the river.

So yeah, it’s a pretty nice place in our very flat state. I admit it.

If you go, walking poles or Yaktrax will provide balance and traction on snow-packed trails. Dress warmly and sneak your sack lunch into the lodge. (They don’t allow outside food because they want to you buy from their overpriced and underdelicious restaurant.) Be sure to check out French Canyon, a short hike from the visitor center. For a shorter trip to LaSalle Canyon, park at Parkman’s Plain, an unsigned lot across from the Old Style sign on Route 71, a few miles east of the main entrance.


Goose Eggs and Doughnuts

It’s May! Which means the long-awaited return of local farmers’ markets. It means asparagus, flowers, rhubarb, and peas. It means weekly bike rides to my suburban Wheaton French Market.

Yeah, I know, the suburbs are “terrible.” My friends can’t say the word without a certain tone that conveys how subcool the suburbs are. I get it. Suburbs lack diversity, character, grit. I don’t disagree.

But allow me to briefly stick up for my home of the last 6 years. Wheaton’s got a fair amount of character. It’s been around since the 1830s, and a lot of homes and giant trees date back about as far. Victorian homes on shady streets abound. It’s got a quaint downtown centered around the UP West line that gives it a small-town feel instead of the soulless feeling that many suburbs offer with their broad expanses of parking lots and strip malls. And now that Wheaton no longer a dry town (since the mid 80s), you can barely notice the conservative influence of the very Christian (but nonetheless prestigious) Wheaton College.

And then there’s our French Market, which holds its own when stacked against other fine markets.Maybe it’s no Green City Market. But your average farmer’s market doesn’t offer goose eggs and doughnuts fried while you wait. And we have those.

So there.


Very Tiny Voyage: Kinda Sorta Spring in Cantigny Park

Spring in Chicago is fickle. A few sunny days in the 60s or low 70s tease us in what is still mostly a cold, wet season. So when the forecast calls for rain all day on Sunday, and then it doesn’t– for once–rain at all, we try to make something of it.

It turned out to be an unexpected decent day with a brisk breeze that reminded us not to take it for granted. The rain would be back soon. So off to Cantigny Park we went, Wheaton’s most prized public space bestowed upon the people by wealthy newspaperman Robert McCormick.

The long, cold winter means a late-blooming spring, so we made do with whatever color we could find, and we liked it.

We’ll even accept dead trees spray painted in pretty colors. Beggars can’t be choosers.

If you’re in Chicago and in need of a some vast expanses of green space, Cantigny is a nice way to spend a day. Take the Metra UP West line and get off at the Winfield stop. From there it’s just a little over a mile to the park entrance, so walk or, even better, bring your bike. Entrance is free ( but $5 to park if you decide to drive). You need just a couple hours to really explore the place, so bring a picnic and make a day of it.

Very Tiny Voyage: Blommer’s Chocolate Factory, a Tasty Chicago Institution

For the better part of the last decade, I have passed by the Blommer’s chocolate factory on my daily commute into Chicago on the Union Pacific West line. On good days, when the wind is blowing in the right direction, the entire Loop smells like a giant brownie. It’s downright dreamy.

“Public Welcome,” beckons the sign on the side of the building. And lucky me! The location of my new office has now put me within a walking distance of the factory. So yesterday I set out on a mission to finally, after all these years, see what the Blommer factory is about.

Outside the chocolate factory, a semi loaded with sugar piped its contents directly into the factory through a tube. I’d like to own one of these someday.

If you go to Blommer, don’t count on a Willy Wonka experience; the public aren’t welcome in the actual factory. (Is it because the Oompa Loompas are camera shy? That’s my guess.) We are allowed only in the retail store, which is all that really matters when it comes to chocolate, anyway. I arrived during lunch to find workers in hair nets (just go ahead and picture Lucille Ball, except replace the cute redhead with some rough-looking tattoed men) hanging out in the reception area and covered in light dusting of cocoa powder.

The adjacent retail shop is stocked floor to ceiling with products made by the companies that buy Blommer’s chocolate, such as Long Grove Chocolates in Buffalo Grove. Blommer itself is mainly a business-to-business venture, but I did manage to find a chocolate bar with their name on the label.

I would love to say that the chocolate was amazing, but the taste was more like that cheap, nameless chocolate you find in gold coins, only fresh. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but my taste for chocolate has been spoiled by such finery as Theo Chocolate in Seattle. But Blommer is pure, old-school Chicago, and this is the chocolate every Polish grandmother in Chicago, including my own, likely grew up eating. And so for that reason alone, it’s worth a visit.


Very Tiny Voyage: Gerritsen Beach

[Guest blogger Leslie Griffin is an editor doing her third tour of duty in New York City. This time around, she is determined to visit places that are off the beaten path. Today she brings us to one of New York’s lesser-known neighborhoods.]

Throngs of people, incessant noise, the stench of garbage, hustle and bustle—if these are the things that come to mind when you think of New York, you’re not wrong. In many parts of the city, these annoyances are ubiquitous, especially the closer to Manhattan you are. That’s why it was such a pleasant surprise when my boyfriend and I discovered Gerritsen Beach last weekend—a charming waterfront community from a bygone era that is very far from the madding crowd (two trains and a bus, to be exact). Where is this unique place, you ask? Brooklyn.

Gerritsen Beach is in the far reaches of the borough on a peninsula bordered by Marine Park to the east and Plumb Beach Channel to the south and west. It was named for Wolfert Gerritsen, a mill owner who lived there in the early seventeenth century. The area remained sparsely populated until around 1920 when a firm called Realty Associates started constructing a summer resort. Modest bungalows sprang up over the next decade, and the neighborhood soon became suitable for year-round residents, most of whom were of Italian, Irish, and German descent. Most of the people who live here now have a long lineage in the neighborhood.

As soon as we hopped off the bus and walked into the neighborhood, we could tell we had left behind the Brooklyn we knew and had entered a different world—a fishing village, perhaps. Most of the original bungalows are still intact, though some are being rebuilt due to damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Many of the houses, which range from kitschy to charming depending on your feelings about lawn flair and Easter decorations, are on the water and have docks and boats out back. We passed by people sitting on their porches chatting with neighbors as kids played in the small front yards. A few cars drove by lazily; gridlock is clearly unknown here, and parking is ample.

It was apparent that we weren’t locals, but no one seemed to mind. In fact, it was as if we had been transported to a small town where being neighborly is the norm. We walked by a man who was giving detailed fishing advice to some other newcomers. And later, another guy went out of his way to help us with directions and explain the alphabetical layout of the streets. Cold and unfriendly New Yorkers? Not here! These folks give southern hospitality a run for its money—but with heavy Brooklyn accents.

After walking by someone’s pigeon coop and a house with several honking geese, we headed to Tamaqua Marina, which has been owned and run by the same family for decades. We were taking some pictures of the tuna fishing boats outside the restaurant there, when a local inquired, “National Geographic?” We laughed and explained that we were on a mission to explore different neighborhoods in the city. He seemed eager to chat, so we asked him about the area.

“We’re still recovering from Sandy,” he said. “You only see a storm like that once in a lifetime. The water rushed in like a river and out like a river.” At its peak, the water rose about six feet above street level. It only stayed that high for fifteen minutes, but by then the damage was done. “At that point, any of these boats—even these commercial fishing boats—could have sailed down the street,” he added. He gestured to the road on the other side of the channel. “A lot of these boats ended up on top of that street over there.”

As a veteran fisherman (40 years and counting), he’s seen it all, but the most memorable event he witnessed happened last year when he was fishing off the coast of New Jersey early one morning with a friend. In the distance, they saw a huge black cloud of birds that looked about a mile wide. “As we got closer, we saw the birds diving into the water, and we realized what was happening. It was a giant school of sardines! Every predator around was congregating right there to feed: birds, sharks, whales, dolphins, sea turtles, everything.” He said it was amazing, and they’d never seen anything like it. “I asked my buddy if we should take pictures, and he said, ‘Nah. Fuck ’em; they’re not here to enjoy it, but we are.’”

Fortunately for us, our newfound friend wasn’t as unwilling as his buddy to share his experiences. As we headed on our way, he said, “There should be more people like you who come here.” So, if you find yourself in Brooklyn one day and want to venture off the beaten path, consider a stop in Gerritsen Beach, where you’ll leave the stereotypical side of the city behind.


Moving: The Worst Type of “Go”-ing

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I have, a couple of times in my life, met people who loved moving. They did it every year. Never did they renew a lease or settle in to a space. The idea of purchasing property never entered their minds. They always wanted to be on to the next.

Those people are insane.

Much as I love to travel, I also love having a safe, comfortable home to return to. I see a good space, whether apartment or condo, make a decision very quickly whether it is right for me or not, and then I nest. I don’t have a lot of stuff, but I like the stuff I have, in the arrangements I have it, and I especially love the comfort that comes with being able to walk to the kitchen to get a glass of water in the dark half-awake without hitting any walls or breaking a glass.

However. There is this dude I want to shack up with. He is too smart to want to live in my neighborhood (although, as loyal readers know, I have a great affection for it). So moving must be done, after a solid four and a half year run of not-moving.

It’s happening fairly quickly, because we found an amazing apartment that we had to snag fast, just a couple miles away, in the heart of the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. Which means that in the space of about a week, movers must be scheduled, sorting and cleaning must be done, boxes gathered, dishes packed, etc. My house is completely upside-down at the moment. Every bag that I’ve ever taken anywhere in the world–the huge backpack that I lived out of for two months in Europe, the tiny overnight bag that I toss in the overhead compartment for weekends in New York–is stuffed full of every possession that I’m not just throwing out because I can’t face carting it down the stairs, down the street, and up the stairs again.

I love almost all forms of going places, but not this particular one. It’s stressful in the logistical details and the physical work, but it’s also stressful in the emotional sense, if one must admit to having feelings. I’m excited for a new adventure, but it’s also hard to leave the place that, as I’ve said before, is the first place that’s truly felt like my home. But going to new places and doing new things is what we’re all about here. Because you never know which new place is going to wind up being your favorite.

How to: Go Out in the Cold

Holy bananas it’s cold out there. Literally every single Chicago-adjacent-living person I know has agreed that this is the worst winter that has ever had to be endured. A lot of the response to this has been for us to just not leave our homes ever. But sometimes, going out is unavoidable. Here’s how I manage it.

1) Under-layer: Sweater tights and knee socks on the bottom, undershirt on the top. Plus obviously all the other things I usually wear under my clothes that you don’t need to read about on the Internet.

2) Regular layer: This is commonly known as “Just your regular clothes; don’t go around naked, dummy.” Important factors to consider are that I’m wearing tights under my jeans, so my skinniest jeans don’t work, and I want my top to involve some warm sweatery thing, because while my office looks cool with its huge bank of windows, that actually just means it’s really cold all the time. (This is why we all got snuggies as Christmas presents this year.)

3) Outer layer: Snow boots. I adore mine, from Baretrap. They’re incredibly warm and comfortable (and cute, if I do say so myself), and they’re reasonably waterproof, although if you go ankle-deep into a puddle, you’re sort of out of luck no matter what. Coat, of course. I can’t bring myself to buy one of the ginormous sleeping-bag coats that many Chicago women swear by, including our own art director, but I do have a nice warm wool coat with a huge hood to keep the wind off. My gloves are cheapie convertible glove-mitten combos from Target, but it means I can use my El pass, keys, and phone without taking off my mittens, and they also have long-ish sleeves tucked under my sweater sleeves so my wrists don’t get cold. I also have a silly but warm fur-lined trapper hat, ear flaps down, of course, and brim pulled down over my forehead. And then I wrap a big Irish wool scarf under my coat and pull it up over my nose. So I have just my eyes exposed.

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Cute, no? Well, maybe not. But I am warm. And while I did have some frost on my eyelashes by the time I got to the El today, I did not lose a limb, and I did not whine *that* much. And I consider that a victory against the elements.