Autumn in Baltimore is a lovely season. It’s my favorite time to take gentle hikes within the parks that spread throughout the city like so many branches. Winter can be nasty and biting, summer is almost always sweltering and sticky, but Autumn and Spring are gentle, shining and just the right temperature, perfect for exploring the post-industrial, burgeoning, redefined city of Baltimore.
Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods and the trail I take most often runs through half a dozen before ending in the lovely Wyman Park. The foliage is still vibrant and leaves line the dirt paths, forming a carpet of color. The air is crisp and under a light jacket, it’s easy to work up a light sweat. Just enough to know what life is.
There are animals about, brown squirrels mostly, but the occasional deer or fox can occasionally be sighted. Dogs and their people walk by from time to time and there are sporadic bursts in the underbrush or, sometimes, joggers huffing and puffing as they pass. For the most part, I walk the Stony Run Trail through Wyman Park in near-complete solitude. I’m alone with my thoughts and my camera. This suits me just fine.
The park is a part of Baltimore and therefore embodies the amenities of the city as well as its eventful history.
Stony Run—and Wyman Park—cut through the city proper, dodging in and out of backyards, housing developments, Universities, alleyways, museums and everything else that makes a city vibrant. It crosses streets, hops location seemingly at random, and includes a tableau of Baltimore. Different pieces of various neighborhoods make up the rough area that forms the trail, including the neighborhoods of Charles Village, Roland Park, Hampden, Remington, Guilford and a small segment of Druid Hill.
It’s a lush area. While I am no horticulturalist, even I can identify many of the trees: pines and oaks, cedars and evergreens, even occasional copses of bamboo, a stray weeping willow or two. There are wildflowers everywhere in the summer—though most of these are resting in anticipation of the winter—and ivy wraps around tree trunks and covers rocks along the stream.
It’s a slice of Baltimore and includes both positive qualities and its troubled history. It is beautiful, artistic and segregated. It’s a city that’s both impoverished and currently under massive redevelopment. It’s the birthplace of Edgar Allen Poe and where Tupac Shakur went to high school. It’s a weird town.
The trail—Stony Run—begins (or ends, depending on the way one views it) in north Baltimore, in the neighborhood of Roland Park. It’s a neighborhood of old money, private schools and million dollar homes. This part of the trail is literally in the backyards of some of the enormous homes. It’s by far the quietest segment of the trail and besides a woman I say hello to as I hop on the trail and one businessman cursing on a cell phone, I see no one for the length of it.
Mostly, I hear my foot on dried leaves and my breathing. I regret taking a jacket because I’ve already begun to sweat through it. But after spending most of the day inside, in front of my computer (as I spend most of my day and anyone reading this can empathize with), it’s a joy to be outside, to feel fresh air on my cheeks. The sun is strong and the day is bright. Shadows dapple on the dirt. I almost regret taking pictures, leaving the moment.
The terminal point of Stony Run juts against tennis courts belonging to Friends School, which belongs to and is run by Quakers (though students do not have to be of the religion). The Quakers are mainstays of liberal Baltimore, of liberal US. Quakers call one another Friend. That’s the sort of ethos that I can get into. I call anyone on the trail friend, a sort of call sign, though none react.
The Quakers began as a radical branch of Christianity and were opposed to much of the orthodoxy of even the laxest of Protestants. To their credit, they were among the first white abolitionists and an integral part of the Underground Railroad. That the trail I love starts near one of their schools makes me happy.
It’s important to note that while Quakers were abolitionists, they were not among the majority of white Americans during the slave days. It’s arguable that there was ever a majority of white people on the side of social progress. In the United States, we have, historically, not been on the side of equality. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, most white Americans were opposed to the movement, as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail. Even today, many Americans are against the Black Lives Matters movement, a group that’s central tenet is “Don’t shoot us, please.”
It’s a troubling phenomenon.
This may seem like a tangent in an article about parks, but it would be irresponsible to talk about Baltimore without mentioning the current state of affairs. The movements, political temper and distrust currently wracking the United States. There’s very little that doesn’t reflect in some way on larger issues. And Baltimore is an exemplar of the hotbed.
Whilst walking within Stony Run, it’s easy to forget that a large city surrounds it. Baltimore contains roughly 600,000 souls and within the metropolitan area are another 400,000 more. But none of that is visible within the trail. Besides the burbles of the stream accompanying the path (a stream that never grows wider than five meters) and the birdsong in the trees, the occasional chatter of squirrels or rustle in the undergrowth, there’s nothing to hear. Listening very closely, the distant sounds of the city can be heard, but it’s a low hum, ignorable if that’s the goal.
Stony Run cuts through meadows and glades on a gentle grade with occasional inclines and declines, but nothing strenuous, assuming one stays on the trail itself. The moment off-roading happens, all bets are off. That is the way of parks, after all. Paths are as difficult as one makes them. But within Roland Park, Stony Run is as unprepossessing as can be.
After a kilometer, Stony Run deadends at a city road and the reentry to the city is startling. If one is paying attention, a tall building is discernable through the treetops, but it’s just as easily ignored. The building is a dormitory of Loyola College, a well-regarded, if minor,institute of higher education.
It’s surprising to jump from quiet contemplation of nature to the bustle of a city, jarring. And the street interrupting the trail—Coldspring Lane—is a busy east-west corridor, carrying traffic from highway 83 deep into the city. Besides Loyola, two other colleges are on that road: Notre Dame and Morgan State University (one of the first HBCUs: Historically Black College and University). Baltimore is also a university town, pouring professionals, artists and academics into its bloodstream. Many of them congregate in the area, many living near Wyman Park, in the nearby neighborhoods.
Crossing Coldspring Lane, the trail thins out and becomes more manicured, more pandering to families and children. There are more benches, more athletic fields, lending libraries. There’s a feeling of safety that is not to be underestimated. As with many cities in the United States, parks after dark can feel unsafe. In many cases, they are objectively unsafe. But this section of Baltimore makes me feel that after dark, I’m as dangerous as it gets. It’s an unexpected feeling. I’m not particularly dangerous.
But it’s not dark. It’s daytime and no one looks even slightly uncomfortable or worried. Nor should they.
Through the trail some more and I’m now in the neighborhood of Guilford, one of the richest areas in Baltimore, having left Roland Park behind at Coldspring and Loyola. John Waters, the director of “tacky” movies such as Pink Flamingos, Pecker, Crybaby and of course, Hairspray lives a few blocks away. Hairspray, set in Baltimore in the 1960s, is about the desegregation of a local television show, a dance show. It’s silly and tacky and also a wonderful film. John Waters doesn’t habitually take on such themes, even aslant. Is it telling that this is his only one? Is it telling that he makes movies about the working class, but lives in Guilford?
This is not a judgment.
Traveling further, the cover of trees fades away and the trail becomes incorporated in subdued city living, still in Guilford. Dirt gives way to pavement and there’s a stretch where one is forced onto the sidewalk. It’s quite pleasant really, and is a mild reprieve from the hidden roots of hiking. While it’s not a trail for serious hikers, I’m wearing sneakers. Don’t wear sneakers when taking this trail.
But the incorporation of these streets is only a short intermission from the parks of Baltimore. Because only a few minutes walk away is Wyman Park proper, a proper green space where families and lovers picnic, energetic people play sports (such as football, American football, lacrosse, softball and baseball), dogs chase each other and people loiter and laugh.
A few years ago, the park ended abruptly at a fenced-off parking lot and hikers had to walk up a street and across the bridge (below) to reach the other side. Now they (whoever they are) has built an access bridge. It’s a nice treat, though I’m disappointed I don’t get to clamber over rocks and to hop a fence like the last time.
Wyman Park proper is a bit of a valley and the treetops loom high, the buildings higher still. It’s wide and large enough that I’ve never seen it crowded. But it is typically well traveled and I wonder how still and desolate it is.There’s a lone man and his dog and both greet me as I walk past, though neither pays me much attention. I wander through, taking my time and breathing in the smell of grass. Over the treetops is the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and beyond it, the neighborhood of Charles Village. I know they’re there and I can see them, but they feel distant, separate from me.
I continue into Wyman Park, ready to delve deep, but am stopped by construction equipment and a sign saying Trail Closed. I suppose even nature needs an occasional facelift.
Unperturbed, I turn off the trail and hop the stream, climbing the steep slope that separates Wyman Park from JHU. The hill is just steep enough to make one catch breath at the top. I catch my breath at the top, wiping sweat from my forehead. My fingers are cold; the rest of me is hot. The sun occasionally blinds.
Along the way, I find a bench and campfire. It is absolutely not legal to have campfires in city parks, but I suppose no one is going to arrest a Hopkins student. After all, those matriculating JHU are the cream of the crop. It’s a world-renowned school, after all. “The Earth Has Music For Those Who Listen” is spray-painted on the bench. I agree and move on.
I’m not dismayed by this detour. In some ways, Johns Hopkins is almost a continuation of the trail itself. It’s a picturesque campus, all brick and shade. Walking through the campus, one imagines that this is the quintessential college experience. Everyone accomplished, everyone ready to learn, everyone on the road to becoming doctors and lawyers and educators.
The area around Johns Hopkins—the Charles Village and Remington neighborhoods—are culturally very diverse. JHU pulls enrollees from around the world, and some of them settle in the area. Between those two neighborhoods and, further south, Mt Vernon, there are restaurants boasting food from around the world. It’s a wonderful stretch of the city in many respects.
Johns Hopkins campus is a little model UN, its brick-lined walkways and looming trees painting quite a picture.
Fun fact: many movies featuring Harvard were actually filmed on JHU campus, notably David Fincher’s The Social Network.
Less fun fact: Johns Hopkins has its own history with Baltimore and with the state. It is by far the largest employer in the state of Maryland, with two hospitals in the Baltimore city limits and countless laboratories and satellites. And there is a deep mistrust with the inhabitants of the city. Johns Hopkins has not always treated people well, especially citizens of color. Among its many infractions is the famous case of Henrietta Lacks in 1941, the originator of the HeLa culture of blood cells, taken from her tumor without her consent or compensation. It wasn’t until the 70s that knowledge of her cells (still used widely today) was made known to them.
It’s a problematic connection and though Johns Hopkins has done great work, they are, of course, still accountable. It is an epicenter of money and power. Tuition to Hopkins is in the tens of thousands of dollars a year and attracts people from all over the world. It is no wonder that the campus is gorgeous and tranquil when they have the money to make it as nice as they want. That they employ so many in the city and the state is a mitzvah. But I wonder if they couldn’t do more, should they wish to. They’ve bought much of the city, as Baltimore has thousands of boarded-up homes,fallout from the mass exodus of population to the suburbs (Baltimore used to have one million within the city limits).
Right beside JHU is the Baltimore Museum of Art, which boasts, among a Rodin and a rather comprehensive modern art collection, a serene sculpture garden that spills more or less directly onto the Wyman Park Dell, a hidden mini-park that many Baltimoreans aren’t even aware of. It’s in another valley and inaccessible from the main Wyman Park without crossing into the city. It’s easy to miss though, once down there, it’s hard to imagine not seeing it. It’s a large open area where college students often play football or throw Frisbees. It’s also a de facto dog park. Benches surround it and in the winter time, it’s a white blanket.
Following the tenor of the day, there’s only a handful of people within the park. I nod at one friendly white-bearded man who sits on one of the benches lining the open space. In his lap, he holds a ukulele and after I nod to him, he strums it. He reminds me of a hippie Santa Claus, up until the moment he opens his mouth and asks if I want to buy marijuana. When I tell him that he’s about 15 years too late, he smiles and nods and turns back to his sunlight.
I continue through the Dell and walk up some stairs until I’m in a nebulous zone that isn’t quite the Baltimore Museum of Art and certainly isn’t Johns Hopkins University. It’s on the tip of Remington and on the outskirts of Charles Village. It’s a very wooded area and I’m here on purpose. I want to check out the old Confederate Statue that I know isn’t there anymore.
Not long ago, there was a demonstration in Virginia of Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. You wouldn’t think such factions would still be around, but you’d be wrong. The underbelly of racism in America isn’t so much hidden anymore, not with the rise of our “president.” But as a result of the demonstration, the ensuing riots and fisticuffs, there’s been a lot of discussion and action around monuments around the nation dedicated to the Confederacy.
The Civil War of the US wasn’t that long ago, not in the grand scheme of things. What are 150 years against the history of the country or of western civilization? No sane person wants to forget the past and there’s very much a place to accept history: museums and the like. But during the civil rights movement of the 60s, there was a burst of action to erect statues honoring the Confederate side of the war, the pro-slavery side. How anyone could honor such figures is beyond me. Slavery is not something to hide or cover up, but neither should it be honored.
The statue that used to stand near Wyman Park was torn down a few months ago in the middle of the night. Baltimore is a majority Black city. It was also a foundation of the slave trade. It didn’t secede during the civil war, but it might have, had not Union troops been stationed in Maryland. Baltimore is technically a southern city, located as it is beneath the Mason Dixon Line separating the south from the north. Confederate flags—the battle flag of Virginia during the Civil War—are not an uncommon sight.
It’s a strange part of history to consider. Even our parks have statues. Not far away from Wyman Park is Lake Roland, formerly named Robert E Lee Park. No one calls it that anymore, but I remember.
Getting back to Wyman Park proper from the site of the former statue only takes a few minutes, cutting through Hopkins and then into Hampden, another neighborhood.There is no “Trail Closed” signs, so I walk to my heart’s content, happy to be back in the woods. I sometimes wonder why I don’t live in the country or at least closer to the city limits since I enjoy the outdoors so much. Times like these make me think that maybe I’m making the wrong choice.
But then I remember the positives. Besides modern conveniences, there’s an immense array of culture in Baltimore. South of Wyman Park, there’s the Maryland Institute College of Art, the University of Baltimore, Coppin State and the Peabody Institue, all pouring students of art into Baltimore. The city is flush with avant-garde theater, writers, painters and musicians (metal and rap, specifically). Choosing culture and the rest means forfeiting other privileges, like peace and quiet, darkness, the smell of flowers.
Wyman Park is a great park and the Stony Run Trail is a beautiful trail, but they’re still poor substitutes for wilderness and country. Still, beggars can’t be choosers and I’m always happy when I walk through it. I’m not complaining.
Pushing further south, the Wyman Park ends. If one cuts a few blocks west, however, following the sparse trail that remains, one encounters its larger, more famous neighbor: Druid Hill Park. Druid Hill is an article all of its own, with winding paths, enormous oaks, a lake and the Baltimore Zoo. But this is not the place for a full discussion of its myriad charms. Consider this, however: Druid Hill has a long history. On one end of its history: segregation and racial discrimination. Even the tennis courts of Druid Hill were segregated. The park itself is certainly not segregated, but it is indicative of the segregated manner of the city itself. While the segregation is not mandated in any way, it is still a split city.
Druid Hill Park is within the “Black Butterfly” of Baltimore, the East and West sides forming a sort of outline that resembles a butterfly. Within the black butterfly is the “White L,” a thin strip running North-South and branching east at the tip. Druid Hill is a line of demarcation of the de facto segregation. The park itself is integrated, but the neighborhoods?
(On a lighter note of Druid Hill’s history: the 90s musical group from Baltimore, Dru Hill took their name from the park. Their lead singer Sisqo, was responsible for the hit single “The Thong Song.” The artistic quality of the song is up for debate, but it is certainly a banger.)
Soon enough, I run into the trail closed sign again, so I climb another incline to the street, disturbing a man who startles when I emerge from the underbrush. City dwellers simply aren’t used to people actually using some of the parks in Baltimore, especially on a weekday. Me, I’m again surprised by the harsh segue of leafy woods to concrete, even if it is a cute street.
I walk along until I hit Upper Wyman, which consists of a playground, a softball field and leafy meadows designed for picnics. Fantastic trees sprout there, trees made for lying under and dozing. The homes lining the park are red brick and large, classic Baltimore row homes.
I dip back into the park, meeting up with my earlier path. The main field is empty this time, no dog walkers or joggers in sight. I amble through, again taking in the foliage and beyond it, the skyline. I’m tired by this point, having walked just over 6 kilometers by this point. I pick up the trail and follow it back the way I came.
The path is clear of trash, besides two empty cases of beer left by the stream. I run into a few dogs and their people, pass by a birding group who point out avians that I don’t have the eyesight or the skill to catch. I trust them, however, even if I don’t linger in their group but hurry along. Underneath a bridge is some artful graffiti. I see a corpse of bamboo and wonder how in the world it got there, so far from where it originated.
I’ve now left Wyman Park and am back on the Stony Run portion of the trail, in the backyard of mansions. The homes were built around the turn of the 20th century and are spacious, massive. Many are built with wraparound porches and servant’s quarters. Some have an acre of land, unheard of in a city of this size. What must it be like to have a wooded area like this as your own personal playground?
Eventually, toward the end of my walk, nearly 8 kilometers from start to finish, I come across a beautiful, massive wall and barred the door. It stretches at least 50 meters, perhaps 100 from front to end and I wonder at it. What is so important to bar the world entry? They are surrounded by other rich people and yet they feel the need to lock out nature. Who do they think will break in?
I love Stony Run and Wyman Park. I love Baltimore. I love the ease with which I can move between neighborhoods, the neighborhoods that feel like townships and enclaves of like-minded souls. There’s so much beauty in this area, in Maryland itself. There are mountains to the West and the ocean to the East. Follow it south and it is the gateway to the southern states.
The deciduous forests that used to make up Baltimore are mostly gone, gobbled up in increments. But the trees hanging above the highways and lining the streets are hundreds of years old, their boughs thick and their roots strong. There are other parks in Baltimore of course, Patterson Park and Leakin. I played kickball at one, went to summer camp at the other. The Jones Falls trail leads to the Cylburn Arboretum. Just south of the Inner Harbor is Federal Hill, overlooking a vista a water.
There’s so much beauty in my city, even if there are deep-rooted problems as well. Baltimore underwent an uprising only two years ago, after yet another police brutality that resulted in death. But America itself is undergoing an upheaval, as anyone who watches the news must see. It’s not always a pleasant place.
Because of all of those feelings and concerns weighing down on me, I relish time in the woods, within Wyman Park. I assume others must crave solitude and nature as well. Because when walking in the woods within a city, I am feeling the peace that can come with nature as if there’s a divestment of self for a moment. And when I come back to the moment, I can see my place within the world, within the problems, a little more clearly. And that is worth a lot.