BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
Boy, does it feel good to be outdoors in this crazy COVID-19 time! Physically distanced, of course, under the occasionally blue skies; the grass growing greener by the day; the snowdrops, crocuses, and other early spring flowers pushing from beneath the ground like groggy bears poking from their dens after a long winter nap; the tree branches filling with birds resting after their journey from Florida, Texas, and other southern states.
I’m lucky to have a safe place to wait out the pandemic, but there’s something claustrophobic after a while about being in a series of boxy rooms for days on end. My 9-year-old son who just got a guitar could be the other issue. I think we all need the unpredictability of nature, the lack of climate control, the sights and sounds of plants and animals, the feeling of the wind on our faces, and the sheer randomness of running into a friend or seeing something you couldn’t glimpse in your house. The outdoors equals joy for me—especially during this challenging time.
The damage being inflicted by this pandemic is jaw-dropping. You know the numbers just as well as I do, so I don’t need to repeat them, yet I can’t stop revisiting them. We all know the catastrophic damage that will occur if we don’t physically isolate—or at least we should. If the epidemiological models are true, it may be too late for 100,000 to 240,000 of us even with social distancing. This is grim news that hopefully can be leavened in some way in the coming weeks.
So, unless you’re a medical professional, first responder, or other necessary worker (thank you, by the way, for the insane sacrifices you’re making to your health in the service of others), we’re indoors for nearly all of our time. But there’s only so many Netflix shows; board games; Zoom conservations; Governor Pritzker, Mayor Lightfoot, and public health experts Drs. Arwady, Faudi, and Ezike press conferences to be wowed by; social media silliness or griping; and other distractions that we can engage in until we feel the pull of the outdoors—especially as spring slowly arrives in Chicagoland.
So we walk, hike, or run outdoors. These and other forms of outdoor exercise are still allowed under Governor Pritzker’s shelter in place edict. A strong immune system and good mental health (which can be improved via time in nature) are important during this challenging time—especially if your son is now armed with a guitar and a very strong desire—no, an obsession—to master the Imperial March song from Star Wars.
The calendar is not perfect for outdoor activity, but I’ll take what I can get. Our COVID-19 semi-quarantine would feel much more soothing with the trees laden with leaves, fewer cloudy days, and temperatures in the 70s, or would that just exacerbate the overcrowding that we’ve been experiencing in public places and encourage the real, meme, or robot version of Lori Lightfoot to kick at our heels? Imagine a bunch of Robot Lightfoots policing the city!? But we don’t need to crowd into a few places. As a Nature in Chicagoland blogger, I can assure you there are PLENTY of places to go outdoors in Chicagoland and not see another person—just check the This Weekend section of my blog.
Our Semi-Daily Walk
My son and I walk the same route every day or two. I try to switch it up, but I think he likes the structure of a regular path. Most days, he’s happy to get out and see the world. Sometimes he has to be cajoled with promises of ice cream from the corner store that’s still hanging on or “porch hellos,” as I call quick conversations with our friends. Myself? I’m always raring to get outside. In the current situation, I’m excited to take the garbage out.
As we walk, each neighborhood spot we pass conjures memories that are sad and a little painful at times. It’s amazing how we take for granted the simple pleasures of life until they’re snatched from us in a matter of two weeks. But we’re trying to turn this walking time-machine, melancholy into good memories. I hope that my son one day tells his kids: “I know where I was during the COVID-19 crisis…out walking with my dad.” That is, right after he tells them he walked 6 miles to school each day and had ONLY 300 channels to choose from on cable and Roku.
Jefferson Park is the first sight we see when we head outside. I’ve enjoyed living across the street from this beautiful park for 15 years, listening to the music of Jeff Fest from my front deck, occasionally watching pick-up soccer games, taking my son to the playground that has the nice sprinkler in the summer, and popping across the street to the Jeff Park Farmer’s Market to eat tamales, drink coffee from Perkolator Coffee and talk with Joe the owner (the coffee shop is closed, but they’ll still deliver freshly roasted coffee, loose leaf tea, and other Perkolator items to your porch), meet friends, purchase produce from local farmers, and listen to a variety of musical acts every two weeks during warm weather.
But back to our walk. We head south down Long Avenue toward a pre-arranged “porch hello” with some school friends. As we walk, I occasionally point out blankets of green grass, cool rocks, and some tree branches that are laden with buds to my son. Sometimes we bring our cameras and snap photos of what we see. We pause to ensure at least 6 feet of space between others as they pass us on this urban exercise trail (i.e., the sidewalk). We eventually reach our friends’ house near Agatite and Long Avenues and I remember so many fun times at their home watching sports, partying with school friends (they know how to throw a good party), or simply hanging out on their back deck. We talk for a few minutes—10 feet between us—and then move on. It’s amazing how a few minutes with friends can really recharge you before you return to semi-quarantine.
My son and I wander east down Agatite, passing the home with the mini lighthouse in the front yard, and then arrive at Our Lady of Victory (OLV), our first church when we moved into the neighborhood. When you think of a Catholic Church, you think of OLV—a nearly 100-year-old church built in a revised Spanish style. It has a great chancel choir. Our family has vivid memories of OLV. My son was baptized at the church, and he attended its school until it closed when he was in kindergarten. We met many of our current friends at OLV.
I’m still a member of its Holy Name Society, which is a fascinating club of men—white collar, blue collar, young and old who do a LOT of good in the parish and also know how to have a REALLY good time late into the night in the parish hall once a month. Sometimes, us “younger” guys bring our kids, who play in the gym and occasionally sneak cans of pop from the beer cooler. One of my best memories is attending a special mass for departed members of the society in the school hall. OLV’s fantastic priest, Father Michael Wyrzykowski, led the mass using a makeshift altar made of folding tables, the bingo sign looming above him as he prayed before men who could be both profound and profane (or maybe just irreverent) all in a 10-minute span during the social part of the Holy Name meeting.
On March 7—days before the shelter-in-place edict—we attended the parish’s annual St. Pat’s Day Party in the school lunchroom/hall, which reminds me of the lunchroom/hall of my own childhood church. Hundreds of people packed into the hall to eat their fill of corned beef and cabbage; talk with good friends; listen to music; dance; dream of winning great raffle prizes; drink tasty beer brewed by Mike, one of the Holy Name guys; and enjoy the sound of bagpipes. I should say BAGPIPES!!! Because they’re so loud that you feel they’ll literally bring the walls of the church hall down on you like the Battle of Jericho. The thunder of the Shannon Rovers Irish Pipe Band bagpipes and drums makes you feel alive and primal—the beer probably helps, too. The St. Pat’s party was the last time probably most of us assembled in a group larger than 10 or so.
But as my son and I walk through the OLV compound, the parking lot is empty and there’s only silence and memories.
We head east on Sunnyside to Milwaukee Avenue. If we walked south on Milwaukee toward Irving Park Road, we’d saunter through another memory lane: many summer nights filled with frozen yogurt at Josie’s, the “Charlie Brown Christmas Special” re-enacted with live actors at the Filament Theatre, wonderful dinners at Community (which still offers curbside pickup, as well as delivery on the weekends), stop-ins at Fearless Cooking, and visits to City Newsstand and the late, great Fishman’s.
But we instead head north down Milwaukee toward home, past RPM Sales, an antique/furniture resale shop that my wife has banned me from because I always bring home some sort of furniture that won’t fit in the house; the temporarily closed Windsor Tavern, where we’ve spent many nights with friends in its beer garden; and Wilson Park, where we played catch, met up with friends for playdates, watched Shakespeare in the Park, and watched our kids ride bikes and play in the sand in the volleyball pit. The playground is now off limits, but I’m glad the park is still being used by runners, strollers, and cyclists.
We continue walking north on Milwaukee toward home, past the fire station that Liam visited with what seemed like 100 Cub Scouts a few months back, Chris’s Billiards (where The Color of Money was filmed), Cosmic Bikes (which is still open!), and other stores. We stop at Milwaukee Food & Liquor for his ice cream. I open the ice cream case lid and grab the ice cream for him because every interaction with the outside world is fraught with danger these days. Some of the store’s shelves are empty. The owner, who has always been giddily cheerful in the past, is somber. He wears thick, black winter gloves as he takes my credit card. The look on his face makes me want to buy hundreds of ice cream cones.
We resume heading north on Milwaukee past Ideal Bakery. which is still open, and the CVS, which was closed for good several months ago. It’s sad to see empty storefronts and now closed stores that have been shuttered by the pandemic.
It’s easy to feel sad about what’s been suddenly lost in America. Lost freedom, lost relationships, lost jobs, lost health, lost lives. But there have been a few grace notes and I’ve tried to make our walks the equivalent of “making lemonade from lemons,” but the “taste” is still bitter at times.
During our walks, we’ve had a chance to explore the neighborhood. We’ve looked into storefronts. One has a silly collection of Easter tchotchke in the front window. My son and I window-shopped for a new bike for me in the window of Cosmic Bikes. There’s some great architecture in this neighborhood—retro signage that survives from the 1970s, 100-year-old buildings, and the spire of the Copernicus Center rising over the neighborhood, for example.
Our walks help us keep up with nature—something that’s easy to feel distant from while under quarantine. The world may feel static inside, but, outside, each day brings us closer to a world of flowers, green grass, leave-filled trees, and warm weather. We’re not seeing bison, deer, and wolves on our neighborhood walks, but we did see 14 robins (we counted) in one spot at Wilson Park, a few rabbits, and armies of squirrels.
Our walks send my son a message that something is constant in his life (other than being stuck in the house all day). We’re a walking and hiking family, and I hope he remembers his dad and mom as active parents who liked to explore the world and see new things.
Our walks send a message of hope in diminished circumstances, that we’re still here and trying to enjoy ourselves and stay healthy during this epidemic.
Store of Peace
In the days before the shelter-in-place order, my wife, son, and I wandered past a store named Linda’s Closet on the corner of Montrose and Milwaukee, it’s windows filled with old bottles, glass art, and other Americana. We’d walked by it for years, fascinated by its contents, but it was never open. On this chilly day, when we had no plans to go in any stores, this curio shop was open and I felt an overwhelming urge to enter the store. My son and wife followed. When I stepped through the door, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace. It was like a light switch had been flipped on. An older woman was doing the rosary in the back of the store. We introduced ourselves. Her name was Linda, and we began talking about what was happening in America regarding COVID-19, and what would happen in the next few weeks (i.e., shelter-in-place, the closing of nonessential stores like her shop, etc.). She was so kind to my son, and even gave him a beautiful painted egg as a gift. We kept talking and before I could stop myself I said, “this place is very soothing and it makes me happy.” I immediately felt sort of embarrassed. She smiled as if she’d heard these words before. I’ve been in many neat stores, and have never blurted out anything like that before, but being in Linda’s shop and talking with her made me feel as if nothing outside mattered or existed for the moment. It was a very powerful, strange feeling, but a good one that my wife shared when we talked about our experience later on.
Just a little over 3 weeks after meeting Linda and soaking in the peace of her shop, the world is a completely different place. On March 15, there were approximately 4,600 COVID-19 cases in the United States. The number was probably much higher but it was, and still is, difficult to be tested for the virus. Today, nearly 260,000 people across every state, plus Washington, D.C., and four U.S. territories, have tested positive for the virus, and at least 6,600 patients have died. The numbers keep rising.
It’s easy to feel hopeless or frustrated during this time, but some of what we had will come back.
There will be days in the future where we don’t think twice about shaking hands or hugging our friends and family, going to a party at someone’s house, sitting in a packed beer garden, or playing in the park. Days when the doors to restaurants, bars, and other places of fellowship; our places of worship; schools and salons; and baseball stadiums aren’t locked. Days when the doors of our homes will once again be flung open to welcome visits from friends and family. Days when a walk outside will just be an afterthought on the way to something exciting and communal. It’s hard to imagine now, but we’ll get through this—yes, worse for the wear—but we’ll get through this.
Maybe if we say it enough it will come true. I know that if we all physically isolate it will definitely come true.
I wish you and your family and friends safety, health, and peace during this challenging time. I encourage you to use the healing power of nature and occasional physically distanced porch visits with friends or family to stay physically and mentally healthy during this extremely challenging time. Do some guilty pleasure Netflix streaming, learn a language or invent a new one, learn to paint or plaster, interview your parents or grandparents about their lives (my friend Nora has a great business, Memoir for Me, that can help you with this project), help out your neighbors, stay in touch with your friends, lose 10 pounds (I can lose 20), and try to have some fun amidst the madness. There’s not much more to do than to hope—taking the occasional walk, but mostly staying in our homes, if possible, until this is over.
I look forward to seeing you on the other side at a noisy beer garden, a neighborhood park filled with kids and families, a raucous political rally (I know how I’ll be voting in November), at a packed concert, at Linda’s shop, or on a stroll down Milwaukee Avenue.
Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes
If you live in the Jefferson Park/Portage Park area, you also might be interested in reading my story, Elegy for a 100-Year-Old Red Brick House.
2021 BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT
Looking for more great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more.