Bloom

Lake Merrit, Oakland
Lake Merrit, Oakland

A vast blooming dale

sans awe, for all eyes elsewhere

sales on Bloomingdale’s

 

Chicago Riverwalk

Before I travel to a new city, I always scour the internet for activities to do while there. Which, I’m certain, most people do. But I also zoom in and out of the city’s online map trying to find parks and other open areas I can walk around.

And that’s how I found the Riverwalk in Chicago.

I love walking. And the idea of spending a day walking around a river was perfect. After all, the last time I visited the US, I spent a sunny Sunday morning circumnavigating Lake Meritt in Oakland.

Looking forward to a similar—or even better—experience, I added it in my to-do list. To make sure I had enough time for photographs, I also made a mental note to arrive well in advance.

When I came upon the Riverwalk, however, it was by complete chance. I was fumbling my way through the streets of Chicago—the best way explore a city, in my opinion—when on my left was an arch engraved with the word, Riverwalk.

“Hum,” I thought approaching the staircase that led down from the street. Going all the way down, I found myself at the base of the Chicago river. It teemed with people, and right on my face stood a banner listing out points of interest along on the riverwalk. It took me less than five seconds to realise that almost everything on the list was a restaurant or a snack bar.

As I turned my back to the board and faced the rest of the walkway, I felt a little dejected. Although it was majestic and charming as all natural waterways, buildings towered over the river on all sides. Instead of an open area, I felt as if I were, along with the thousands of people on the river, enclosed inside a massive balloon.

I didn’t want to let that bring me down, though. A nature lover at heart and soul, I thought the rest of the path would delight me. And delight me it did.

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Not crying for attention, the river remained calm, bearing, in dignified silence, the many tourist cruise boats and kayaks that sailed on it. As I walked along, sunlight reflected off of the architecture along the river, while the water bed remained dark.

There was no lack for people, however. Much like the Lake Merritt, the Chicago Riverwalk also attracted thousands of onlookers, walkers, and camera enthusiasts. The jarring difference between the two, though, is that while the lake Merritt hosted most locals, the Chicago Riverwalk bore most tourists.

That’s when I understood that the Riverwalk, much like The Bean in The Millennium Park, is an iconic part of Chicago that always makes it to the brochures. That explained the restaurants, the elevated seating areas, and the endless stream of photographs. It was a much shorter walk than Lake Merritt, albeit it covered a handful of streets. I loved gaping up at the bridges that went across the lake, each a different street by itself. Everything seemed so colossal that it left me wandering as if I were inside the Coliseum, watching the metallic hum that echoed all around me

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It took me a while to digest the idea of Chicago’s Riverwalk being a more visitor-focussed landmark as opposed to the Lake Merrit—more of a local monument. While I enjoyed every moment of my walk by the river, I also felt the unmistakable sense of not belonging there. I felt alien, as a visitor, as someone who will never return. With Lake Merritt, however, I felt more at home. The ducks, the ageing friends, young mothers, active runners, and that one angry teenager yelling at her mom on the phone all made Lake Merrit closer to reality.

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The Riverwalk, on the other hand, was like a self-guided tour. I had my brochure, I had a list of stuff to do and see near by, and I had lots of sights expecting my camera. Fellow travellers and tourists joined in the walk, “ooh”ing and “ahh”ing, appreciating the city’s infrastructure, applauding the architects’ genius, and monumentalising memories for when they’re old and fragile.

I will say this, though: Despite being a honeycomb to buzzing tourists, the Riverwalk remains as one of the best 45 minutes of my time in Chicago. It’s an experience worth cherishing, and if I’m in the city again, I’ll pay the river a visit, not as a tourist walking along the river, but perhaps as someone more used to the city—perhaps as close to a local as a traveller can get.

 

It’s a walk by the lake

While in Pleasanton, I asked my colleagues about places I could look around, walk by, and just spend a quiet day. In a unanimous voice, most of them responded with: Lake Merritt. I looked in to it. It was a huge lake in Oakland, California, and—according to my maps—lots of space to walk around.

That was more than enough to hook me in. Although, I realised as I prodded my map further, I would have to take a 20-25 minute train ride to get there. Lucky for me there’s a train station right by the lake, making it easier to get to and from the lake. Everyone I spoke to agreed the lake would be worthwhile indeed.

Lake Merritt 3
The heart-shaped lake is a 3.4-mile (5.5 kms) walk around.

It happened to be the day after I visited the Golden Gate Park. I had walked about 23 kilometres at the park and woke up the next morning with my legs stretched out in an awkward angle. My thighs were sore, my feet were tired, and yet I was excited beyond words to see the lake. I left my hotel at about 7:30 and reached Oakland’s Lake Merritt station at about 9:15. It was a bright summer day and the sun showed signs of warming up later. I walked on to the street.

The first thing I noticed was the silence. Then I realised why: lack of people. I was at the Oakland Museum of California and I saw no one in sight. It exuded the feeling of a narrow dark alleyway without the stink or the unfriendliness of it. My first impression of Oakland was that it was a weird combination of a welcoming and, yet, human-deprived place. I loved it.

Following the map on my phone, I stopped when I saw the lake stretching out in front of me. I had arrived at a main street juncture. With long and tall buildings flanking either side of me, lots of greenery extended in front of me. Beyond it I could spot a streak of blue that’s Lake Merritt.

Oakland Museum of California

Vehicles whizzed past, people going to do whatever they had to do on a Sunday morn. Even then, there were fewer vehicles than in San Francisco. Oakland yet again presented a smaller, quieter, city. The massive open space in front of me housed railings and benches, glittering in the morning sun bearing early walkers and joggers. I crossed the road and approached the railings. It was 9:30 and all around me people stretched themselves, talked to each other or into their earphones. Some walked with children, some walked with parents, and even a few dogs walked their humans.

Lake Merritt 2

Finding no sign or guide lines about walking the lake, I took to my right and started off staring at the lake and at the buildings that loomed over it. Although Oakland didn’t compare to the glamour and rush of San Francisco, it’s in no way secondary to the high-rise buildings it prides upon. Towering structures made me pick up my jaw many times over. And I stopped walking every few minutes to try and encapsulate entire buildings into the screen of my minuscule iPhone 6.

Lake Merritt is huge, and beautiful. It was still early in the day when I started walking around the lake and the moon from the previous night lingered until about 10:00 am. For some weird reason I felt so at peace seeing the moon hovering on the left side over my head while the sun shone on my right. It was as if I stood in between the best of two worlds. The lake, I later learnt, is in fact a lagoon, and was formed in 1870 and is home to the oldest wildlife refuge in the United States.

As I walked around the 155-acre lake, I experienced mainstream life of Oakland. Everywhere I went in the US with fellow travellers, we were tourists. But on that day, not only was I alone, but I also had a backpack like any college student. I strolled for a while, stepped up my pace in some places, and stood gazing at the water in most instances. And as I walked, I encountered people going on with their lives unperturbed by this scrawny person unfamiliar with their town. A couple discussed alternative running locations for the following week while two older women fed pigeons in silence. Parents dragged kids in trams, and a teenager argued with her mother on the phone. Glass buildings floated on the water and elegant trees, twisting from the ground up, posed for cameras without a shame.

No one noticed a duck doing a backflip. They’d seen in hundreds of times already.

It was all new for me, though. It was a glorious day to spend outside, and joy from inside of me. It wasn’t until I finished a complete round of the lake that I felt the pain in my legs return. But it was nothing—numbing physical pain was no match to the soul-touching experience of inhaling fresh water breeze.