Finding Nature Close To Home
February 23, 2018
Words: Jess Hunt-Ralston/
Photos: Chad Ralston / Jess Hunt-Ralston
In travel we trade the ordinariness of everyday living for the great unknown. We bet on the kindness of humanity and on finding beauty unfamiliar in the world beyond our front door. If only for a few days at time, we let go and we get going.
There’s also a deep and wonderful giddiness to be found in planning the next big adventure. Scrolling endless feeds of gorgeous locales, booking tickets and tours, perfecting itineraries, checking the weather. Packing bags. Setting the out-of-office reply. Asking one last time, “Did we turn everything off?” before rushing headlong into that anxious ritual of grabbing suitcases, locking the front door, and heading out of town.
Could we conjure that same spirit — that freshness and anticipation and sense of wonder — without stepping foot into a car, plane, or train?
It was two in the morning on a Monday and I couldn’t resist taking a peek outside. As our dogs bounded through the door, the backyard embraced us with a winter regalia rarely donned by our southern home of Atlanta, Georgia. Snow blanketed our sparkling street as ice winked from every last tree branch.
We were snowed in. Work was canceled, sleds were out, and a cup of hot coffee was in hand. For two days we slowed down and enjoyed the quiet joy of going nowhere and doing nothing.
That weekend my better half, Chad, and I planned to sojourn someplace warmer — to load the pups into the SUV and drive south until we could feel our toes and noses and soak up a few rays of sunshine. Come Saturday, though, that someplace could be found just outside our front door: In three days the weather had seesawed from base layers and below-freezing to a breezy, clear sky.
So as the city shook off its snowy coat and a sunny Sunday stretched lazily ahead, we opted to leave suitcases unpacked and instead embark on a little car-free staycation.
The morning began with a luxuriously simple breakfast of our favorite things: piping hot French press coffee, oat-grain toast with strawberry lavender jam from the weekly farmers market basket, apples and kohlrabi, and delectable Irish cheese and butter we had first found while exploring the windswept coast of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.
Thermos and snacks packed into a day bag, we set out on our bicycles to explore a remarkable set of interconnected parks just a few miles east of the mailbox: Olmsted Linear Park, Candler Park, Freedom Park, and Frazer Forest, a 39-acre sanctuary for flora and fauna that presided over the day we declared “I do!” beneath an arbor of lutea rose and jasmine in the Forest’s old estate garden.
Speeding along Freedom Park trail, we joined a pack of sundry cyclists, fitness riders bedecked in spandex, neighbors out for morning errands, visitors on Atlanta’s signature baby blue rental bikes. To be counted among so many metropolitan pedestrians and cyclists opting out of cars and into nature felt at once refreshing and relaxing as we wove through pocket parks that frayed away from busy thoroughfares and onto quieter paths less traveled.
As the trail dipped down into Candler Park we took a break on a foot bridge. Peering into the blue-green water of the creek below, a man joined us in looking for turtles and showed us their favorite spots to sunbathe along the edges of the stream.
Cutting out of Candler Park, we began to thread the pockets of Olmsted Linear Park, a 45-acre greenspace designed in 1893 by Frederick Law Olmsted, the visionary behind New York’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, as well as a man widely considered the father of American landscape architecture. Saved from becoming a four-lane highway by a 1980s neighborhood alliance, the Olmsted Linear Park trails neatly string six petite parks together like a row of pearls, each peeking shyly from the fringes of a busy road.
Midway we discovered a massive estate and former church resting patiently in limbo between Brightwood and Shady Side parks. Jagged voids of punched-out windows conveyed finches between worlds while a stone fountain, dry as windswept skin, sulked and sagged like a child in timeout. Peering inside we were surprised to find freshly cut flowers holding their posture in crisp cut-glass vases. The church steps were rather mossless and rows of modern-style congregation chairs lined up before a piano in one wing of the house.
Checking neighborhood meeting minutes online, we discovered a developer had approached the estate’s owners about converting the property into condominiums just six months before. For awhile, at least, Pinebloom Mansion stood frozen in time, unflinching as a clock, largely unchanged from its genesis and only offering us a small sign that politely requested “no skating” of its visitors.
Soon after we rolled through towering iron gates and into the quiet sanctuary of our beloved Cator Woolford Gardens. Absent the wedding day hustle and 160 of our nearest and dearest, the Garden had softened and felt even more welcoming and peaceful than we’d remembered.
"As the city shook off its snowy coat and a sunny Sunday stretched lazily ahead, we opted to leave suitcases unpacked and instead embark on a little car-free staycation."
First cultivated in 1920, the gardens were built as part of the estate of Cator Woolford, a philanthropist and founder of the company known today as Equifax. Restored in 1996, the garden and forest are now maintained by The Frazer Center, a non-profit that assists nearly 200 children and 100 adults with developmental disabilities each day. When not booked for a special event, the Center opens its gates to all visitors, welcoming them to walk freely in the woods.
Along the trails deep within Frazer Forest, we found old-growth hardwoods, thickety brambles of bamboo, downed logs rotting with life, chipmunks and cardinals, wide-eyed robins and chattering squirrels. At the base of a towering hardwood we stumbled upon a homemade tiny door, and some steps later across a homespun sign letting us know, “You’re in someone’s yard. Enjoy it, but please be respectful!”
From the woods we retraced the garden steps of our wedding day, from the arbor we stood beneath as we shared our vows over two years ago, to the lawn we ran across (stopping to pick a bit of lavender along the way — it helps with relaxation, you know — or so we’ve read), to the footbridge to nowhere that we crossed together before joining our guests for dinner and dancing on that life-altering evening. We stood on the same sun-bleached steps where our wedding portrait was made, this time in flannels and jeans and a baseball cap. It all felt right. It could have been the lavender!
"There’s something special about revisiting your secret places just before the sun begins to dip low in the sky, when no one else is around and the city skyline view is all yours to enjoy."
After a little picnic we pedaled back down Olmsted Linear Park and Freedom Park trails, still miles away from the hustle and bustle of the nearby (and uber popular!) BeltLine trail. Our final stop would be the Carter Center, founded in 1982 by two fellow Georgia natives, President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, with a goal of advancing human rights and alleviating human suffering.
We hitched our bikes and found ourselves in Rosalynn’s rose garden. The groundskeeper had mounded the bushes high with mulch to protect them from the cold snap that had snowed us in just five days before. Absent were the pink and white blooms, the petals soft as sageleaf. Absent was the aroma that has seared roses into poetry books for ages. In their place, merely thorns and withered flowers, a foreshadow of springs to come. Yet the garden was no less peaceful. There’s something special about revisiting your secret places just before the sun begins to dip low in the sky, when no one else is around and the city skyline view is all yours to enjoy.
After cheersing the day with thermoses raised to the sky, we pedaled on home. I ran a steaming bath — complete with epsom salt and warm jazz — while Chad pulled out the cutting board to chop vegetables for an early dinner feast: black jasmine rice loaded with turmeric, ginger, olive oil, and dark, leafy greens.
"Watching the embers of the fire shimmer like crystal caves, we realized we’d spent no money, driven no miles, yet felt like we’d explored an entirely new destination that day."
Our pups, Kipper and Pimms Cup, joined me in building a camp fire off the back deck, using wood from my mom’s farm at the foothills of the Northeast Georgia mountains. We built the fire the same way I’d learned in Boy Scouts with my brothers 25 years ago. Start with a bed of tinder, build up a teepee of kindling, strike a match, surround with split logs, and fan those flames with plenty of air.
As the sun set over our little craftsman bungalow, we dined on s’mores and laughed over Kip and Pimms’ attempts to eat oh-so-sticky toasted marshmallows. With Atlanta’s finest Emergency Drinking Beer in hand, we mulled over the weekend behind us and the week ahead. Watching the embers of the fire shimmer like crystal caves, we realized we’d spent no money, driven no miles, yet felt like we’d explored an entirely new destination that day. Our sustainable staycation had cost nothing while roundly enriching mind and body alike, leaving us with a deeper appreciation of our home and sense of tranquility in our own neighborhood.
Sometimes, if you look closely enough, you might find the cure for cabin fever is right in your own backyard. With the smell of campfire in my hair, I drifted off to dreams of all of the other secret gardens out there, waiting for us to explore and appreciate their beauty and the earth at our feet.