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Finding moments of mindfulness and the monarch migration

By: Erica Zazo + Save to a List

This story is presented by Oboz.

I am a butterfly.
I hatch from my chrysalis as the frost thaws from the native prairie grass and ice recedes from Lake Michigan’s shoreline.
My mental metamorphosis begins when I wake from my winter slumber and take flight.
I long to soak in the sunlight and breathe in the fresh air. I yearn to reconnect with the natural world around me.
A kaleidoscope journey, I embark on my spring migration into urban nature: Near the water, on the trail, in the tall grasses, among the trees, under the stars.
Finally, I arrive home.

A person in a baseball hat, jacket, long pants, hiking boots, and a backpack is seated on a concrete structure next to a blue lake. There are white caps on the water and the Chicago skyline is in the distance.
Erica looking out over Lake Michigan, wearing Oboz Katabatic Low boots. Photo: Allison Clark

Over 200 million monarch butterflies migrate northward from central Mexico to Canada every year. They stop in Texas to lay eggs on milkweed plants and give life to a new generation of monarchs. The hatched larvae transform into pupa and then into adult monarchs. The kaleidoscope of full-grown butterflies continues their travels north and reaches the Midwest, specifically Chicago, by the end of May.

I’m, of course, not a butterfly in the literal sense. Though I do relate to this wayfaring pilgrimage the monarch butterflies make each spring on their return home. Winters in my home city of Chicago are challenging. My mental health takes a tumble every winter while stuck indoors throughout the cold days and dark evenings between November to March. I don’t spend much time outdoors; I struggle to keep active; holiday stressors challenge me; I’m anxious about the social pressures of New Year’s resolutions; And, by the end of it all, I’m simply fed up with the cold.

It’s not until spring that I can fully step back into my routine of reconnecting with myself and a healthier state of mind. Like the monarchs, each April, I make my own migratory journey from within confined walls to the open expanse of urban nature.

A person walks along a concrete path next to a teal lake with the Chicago skyline in the distance.
Urban hike along the Lakefront Trail with downtown Chicago in view. Photo: Allison Clark

This year, on the first 50-degree day, I make my way to the Burnham Wildlife Corridor, a 100-acre stretch of nature preserve that borders Lake Michigan about six miles south of downtown Chicago. Spring vegetation here is less lavish than in the summer months but still provides a respite from the hustle of the city and the chance to rekindle a sense of connection with nature. 

Come summer, this wildlife area explodes with native Illinois prairie, lively savannah, woodland ecosystems, and colorful wildflower blooms. It’s an amazing place to birdwatch, as Chicago serves as a temporary home to over 250 species of migratory birds throughout the year. I escape here because it’s the perfect place to decompress, devote time to mindfulness and meditation, and breathe.

My destination for today is the La Ronda Parakata Gathering Space, a circular sculpture and sitting area atop a shallow hill above the 31st Street Harbor. The outlines of large butterflies, interconnected from wing tip to wing tip, make up its shape. Natural vines wrapping around the metal sculpture change colors with the seasons, turning bright green in the spring and hues of fiery orange in the fall. This time of year, they’re brown and pop against the glacial blues of Lake Michigan and a cloudless sky.

A person stands on a concrete structure next to a lake. A large wave is crashing in and is soaking the person who is smiling at the camera.
"Playing tag" with the Lake Michigan waves. Photo: Allison Clark

The journey begins with a walk along a crushed limestone path near the Lakefront Trail. My lightweight Oboz Katabatic Low boots are perfect for this type of adventure. Having a trail-to-town hiking shoe is helpful when living in a big city like Chicago. With abundant access to greenspace in the urban metropolis, I appreciate the ease of switching between city streets and local trails. 

As I hike next to the lake, the healing nature of the water seeps into my soul. From the sounds of the waves splashing on the cement pathway to the fishy smell of lake water in the air, I take in the experience through each of my senses. This kind of mindfulness is what truly grounds me in nature.

I play tag with the lake for the last stretch of my hike on the trail, dodging the water as it crashes powerfully against the seawall. The wave wins, dousing me in water. Thankfully, my waterproof gear keeps me dry. I arrive at a woodchip path and follow it through the grass prairie to the top of the La Rhonda Gathering Space. 

The grass this time of year reaches only ankle height, and I stop to imagine how jungle-like the preserve will be in the summer. It’s no wonder the monarch butterfly thrives on their journey to Canada in this urban stretch of coastal flyway through Chicago. It hardly feels urban, if you ask me.

A person is walking toward a large sculpture of interwoven vines. There is an urban skyline in the background.
Exploring the La Rhonda Parakata Gathering Space sculpture. Photo: Allison Clark

Ducking under the vine-covered structure, I make my way into the center of the gathering space. I explore for a short while before sitting down on a stump to take in the view. The vantage point overlooks Chicago’s towering skyline and a panoramic view of Lake Michigan. It’s simply stunning.

Mindfulness means taking the time to connect with the world around you. It’s about appreciating the small details, embracing the sounds, studying the sights, and being present in the moment. Like a monarch butterfly in migration, I escape into nature to find myself again. It’s in these moments – near the water, on the trail, in the tall grasses, among the trees, under the stars – when I’m truly home.

A person is smiling at the camera while holding onto a tall woven sculpture made of vines. The person is looking through an opening in the sculpture.
This is what it feels like to be "home." Photo: Allison Clark
A person is hiking away from the camera toward the Chicago skyline.
Hiking in the Burnham Wildlife Corridor. Photo: Allison Clark

Follow Erica's Midwest adventures on Instagram and Twitter.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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