Getting outside to enjoy the earth's goodness is right up there with brushing my teeth in terms of importance: It's much easier to shell out extra dough for organics and eco-friendly products when I've built a solid relationship with the turf I'm protecting. Planning ahead has never been my strong point, which is what makes something as simple as flying a kite so appealing. The nonpolluting, inexpensive, fuel-free, non-animal-tested activity is not only good no matter what my energy level or who I decide to bring along; it also just might be the best vehicle for making new friends I've discovered since college.
My theory is strongly supported by Mike Illich. The 73-year-old Oak Park resident bikes the eight miles from home to the North Avenue beach at least five days a week during the warm season for the simple pleasure of sending a kite up in the air for a few hours.
The beauty of kiting is that there it requires so little training, but Mike was happy to humor me with a lesson anyway. He explained his gear: Delta kites (wide-based triangles) are easier to fly than the iconic diamond-shaped ones. He insists the best kinds are the ones that come cheap; most in his vast collection were acquired for $1 from toy departments at Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens or Osco. He replaces their dinky tails with ones he makes himself from scraps of fabric or even toilet paper. The tail's function is to anchor the kite, so the more powerful the wind is, the more length you'll want.
After a gust of wind got us off the ground, Mike pedaled on his bike for a bit with the reel in his hand, building the wind resistance and getting the kite up high, where the wind is stronger. Soon enough, the kite was soaring up over Lake Shore Drive. We sat on a stone ledge overlooking the path and let the kite pull itself up and up. His rule: Let it climb when the wind is pulling, but when the wind abates, pull it in to maintain tension. We estimated 1,800 feet at the kite's highest point, judging from the amount of line left in our hands.
That's about when I noticed the scene we were making. People stopped to ask us questions, to ask if they could hold the string, to point out the kite to their toddlers and teach the kids a new word. But best of all for Mike were the ones who stopped in their tracks, parked their blades or bikes and stood, silent and smiling, with necks craned up, for minutes at a time. They didn't know he saw them watching; they were too absorbed. "I get a kick out of that," he confides. With his own inner child so healthy, he's happy to help inspire the feeling in others.
Whether it was the running around in open space, the staring at the sky, the absolute calm and detachment from a busy week, or just all the happy attention, I admit that the afternoon flying lesson made me a newborn kite addict. There's something about standing on the ground and feeling connected to something soaring away that's just as magical now as it was when I was five.
Want to take this outside? Fuel your inner kite enthusiast with these options:
Let's go buy a kite Enthusiasts near and far raved to me about Chicago Kite/Kite Harbor, Chicagoland's source for everything kite-oriented. Located at 109 N. Marion St. in Oak Park, the store carries gear for both novices and experts, ranging in price from $5 to more than $1,000. Timeless Toys at 4749 N. Lincoln Ave., and Tom Thumb at 1026 Davis St. in Evanston are also good bets.
Flying fest Watch pro flyers do tricks for some incredible inspiration. In addition to the popular Mayor Daley's Kids and Kites Festival (held in May and planned again for October), find a listing of nearby kite festivals at here.
With tuppence for paper and strings Like Jane and Michael Banks, you can make your own. Simple, illustrated instructions can be found here.
After four greener-than-average college years as a co-op dweller-turned-aspiring-permaculturist, Julia Steinberger finds it hard not to feel guilty about her one-bedroom apartment, daily commute and indulgence in the occasional dollar burger. She'd like to dream that she could live in a tent/treehouse/rabbit hole, but the truth is, she'd rather stay in the city while doing her best to leave a lighter footprint on the earth. You can contact her here.