(This is part one of a two-part series where writer Christina Blacken takes the Ford Bronco Sport to Chicago’s surrounding wilderness).
My ancestors ooze in my bones. DNA is a walking imprint of what’s happened before us, etching genetic mutations into our cells that nod to the joy, triumphs, traumas, and adaptions of the past. My ancestors were rooted in the land, hands torn from the labor of picking cotton, strained backs from digging into the earth as sharecroppers for three generations before me, and as slaves only a few years before that; a past that is closer to the present than society recognizes.
My ancestors also used the land to relax their bodies and nourish their communities. My grandmother describes the garden in the yard of her childhood home in Memphis, Tennessee, like having a personal grocery store outdoors, with tasty vegetables available for the picking.
As an adult, living in a city means I’ve spent less and less time in the healing complexity of nature that my family grew up in, so when I got the opportunity to plan a two-day nature excursion after being in quarantine for over a year, I grabbed at the chance like a buoy in a storm, ready to float up and off into a sea of adventure. I got my hands on the latest Ford Bronco Sport as my preferred method of travel so I could make the short drives to each outdoor destination.
The first day of my trip started with picking up the SUV to take the short two hour trek right outside of Chicago to my first stop: Lake Geneva Ziplines and Adventures. My Bronco Sport was the color of a happy bumble bee, and I immediately fell in love with the sound system, putting on my favorite playlist I curated of afro-beat, RnB and hip-hop lovingly titled, “We done made it.” With the bass rumbling through the interior, I followed the easy on-screen GPS on the dashboard to Lake Geneva Ziplining, an oasis including nine ziplines, five sky bridges suspended 100 feet from the ground, four suspended spiral staircases clutching the tops of trees, high ropes courses, rock climbing and more, tucked into a 100-acres of forest laden hillside. This location once was a turkey farm a number of years ago and was turned into the ultimate adventure, a short drive away from the business of Chicago.
I was solo, so my ziplining group consisted of a couple, as well as a group of three women who were sisters and friends. We all quickly became friendly, with everyone in the group being a zipline newbie except for myself, as I had zip lined once before in Costa Rica. But I had never done a zip line course quite like this.
Before we could hit the course we needed to gear up. Our two cheery guides assisted us in pulling up our harnesses like a good pair of pants and clicking on helmets. If you know anything about curls, conventional helmets were designed to not take them into consideration. I tried to squash my curls into submission, but the neck strap was too close for comfort, so another ziplining assistant made a DIY extender from a light blue rope with a slip knot that provided some space for my curls and chin to breathe. We each then slipped on thick gloves our guides jokingly called our “gardening gloves”—they were a bit baggy on my smaller hands—with hair ties wrapped around my wrists to make sure they wouldn’t fall off midair. After we were fully geared up and ready to roll, we loaded into an open wooden trailer, pulled by a green tractor that would take us up the lush green hillside to our first zipline.
We began the course with a simple tutorial, our first zipline a mere five feet off the ground so we could learn the proper ways to hold our bodies and stop ourselves. Our guides would be the ones to always clip us properly onto the metal ziplining ropes, and to stop ourselves they would flag when to gently rub a hand back and forth on the line behind the harness to create the friction that would bring us to a stop.
The first two zip lines were easy and straightforward, each 50 feet and 100 feet across respectively. The following ziplines upped the ante at each stop. When we got to the fourth line, we were tasked with crossing our first sky bridge. The bridge was three narrow wooden planks wide, with spiraled knotted ropes and wire chords holding the brunt of the weight of each zip liner, but loose enough for it to become an adult bouncy house-like experience when walking across. When I tell you sky bridges are my least favorite part of ziplining I am not exaggerating, but I was able to calm my nerves and enjoy the view suspended in the air with some quick mental exercises and deep breathing.
We also had to climb between zipline stations to each platform up five separate spiral staircases, each shaped like wobbly DNA helices on the outside of the trees. Each time a participant would clip in to go, the ziplines would sing like the roar of a running airplane engine. By the end we were all feeling confident, taking pictures while leaning off the side of the platform with just a harness keeping us from falling to the ground. The course was capped off by a racing zipline, the longest in the facility. We asked what some good tips were to win the race, and I heeded the note to keep my body as small as possible by holding a cannon ball position, beating my opponent of course.
Once ziplining was over, I hopped back in the Bronco Sport to grab some lunch 15 mins away to be close to my next adventure: kayaking on Geneva Lake with Clear Water Outdoor.
Kayaking is one of the easiest ways to get out on the water quickly when you’re solo and is one of my favorite summertime activities. You can leisurely paddle and relax, letting the gentle rock of the water lull you into a trance, or you can test your endurance by going far distances. You don’t need much training or prep to kayak, so it’s a great watersport for beginners. I’m proud that I was told by my kayaking instructors who helped me step into my rental that I was one of the most graceful to enter a kayak with them in a long time (usually people struggle to get into the kayak, wildly tipping the kayak back and forth as they step in, but not this pro!).
Geneva Lake is inside of the City of Lake Geneva, a small town that was originally inhabited by the Oneota Tribes of the lost Hopewell Culture. These agricultural communities enjoyed an advanced civilization on these shores as long ago as 1,000 B.C. It’s now a tourist town of about 8,000 and considered a waterfront escape for Chicago residents with a short one-and-a-half-hour drive outside of the city.
My kayak was a gradient of red and orange hues, with the cute phrase ‘Old Town’ plastered on the side. After some quick instructions on what areas were safe to paddle in, I gently sliced through water near the dock on the left hand side of buoys that kept manual water sports protected from speed boats, tours, and jet skis. I had no set destination and no rush, so I leisurely paddled, taking in the beautiful shorefront homes, wooden docks, birds, and water activities buzzing around me.
I find being near or on water really contemplative, a time for self-reflection and healing. The way the water moves is similar to how life tends to feel, what’s expressed on the surface is just a small microcosm to the mystery of life teeming just under the surface. After about 40 mins of cruising along the shoreline of the lake, light rain started to drizzle down. Kayaking in the rain isn’t dangerous unless it’s a thunderstorm, but I had my phone with me for photo ops and didn’t want to risk wet electronics so I went back to shore. I ended the day with a nice long drive back to Chicago through the winding hills, with my favorite playlist rumbling throughout the Bronco Sport.
What this first day excursion taught me is adventure and nature is all around us city dwellers, you just have to look for it, and you won’t be disappointed when you do.
Christina Blacken is a writer, performer, and public speaker on the topics of inclusive leadership and culture change, and is the founder of TheNewQuo.com, a leadership development and inclusion consultancy.