Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting our local zoo. The Brookfield Zoo.
I was first introduced to this fantastic place when I started dating my hubs. It’s large and spread out and set in the middle of a wooded suburb southwest of Chicago. Ahhh, I have such fond memories of this great place. My hubs LOVES the zoo. And, for that reason, I’ve learned to love it as well.
We became members years ago because it was always a fun spot to take the kids. We took our boys there often when they were young. Over the years, we just kept our membership active. Even so, I only manage to get there once or twice every few years. It had been a long, long time since my last visit. Yesterday was the day I’d finally get back! It was perfect timing. School was back in session and the weather was beautiful. I was with one of my sons and we’d practically have the place to ourselves!
But, we didn’t. The place was packed. The line to get in was long. It was moving slow. There was a little hut that everyone was waiting in line to get through. It reminded me of a toll booth. The cashier, who was cleverly dressed in park ranger attire, sat inside collecting entrance fees and handing out zoo maps.
As we sat in the long line waiting for our turn to gain entrance, I glanced over at the parking lot. I was shocked! It looked filled to capacity. Where did all of those cars and people come from? Good grief, were there that many families with toddlers and preschoolers out for a play date today? Didn’t anybody nap anymore? Now wasn’t that just my luck. It looked like everyone and their neighbor decided to visit the zoo the same day as we did.
I looked away from the crowded parking lot and back at the line we were sitting in. Our car was moving again. We were inching forward! Hurray! It was finally our turn in line to pull up to the tiny, brown cashier’s booth. We paid and passed through the gate. Then, we were stopped again. Standing right in front of us a few feet through the gate stood a parking lot attendant. We were being directed away from the normal parking lot. Huh?? But the zoo was that way. We were being sent to the overflow lot. This was about a block away on a dirt field in the back of a high school. There were all kinds of volunteers wearing bright orange sashes and waving flashlights with red plastic covers directing the cars. We followed the line of cars through the ‘good’ parking lot and into no-man’s land. It was as if we were at a major sporting event. Their was a young man holding two flashlights at the end of the line. He directed us with precision into our parking spot. He waved his flashlights in stiff, official movements. Like a ramp agent on the tarmac directing a 500 seat passenger plane at the airport.
Eventually we parked and headed back in the direction of the zoo. It seemed miles away. After making our way past the arched stone entrance, I noticed that not much had changed since years ago when I first visited the zoo. The map showed that they still housed bears and lions, elephants and giraffes. And, all of the wild, exotic animals that you look forward to seeing. Many of the exhibits were in different locations but for the most part, it was just as I had remembered it from long ago.
On our way to our first exhibit, I spotted the tram. It had been in service there for as long as I can remember. It’s a slow-moving, multi row vehicle that travels all over the paved paths leading from one exhibit to the next. The outside of it is painted like a an exotic animal. On board, there’s a zoo guide dressed from head to toe in khaki. He wears a hat similar to one you’d see on Harrison Ford portraying Indiana Jones. It sits jauntily on his head. As the safari vehicle crawls along, the guide speaks through a microphone which muffles his voice. He tells you interesting facts about the animals as you pass by them. You move at a snail’s pace. Something I remembered all too well. We rode on that tram a few times with the kids when they were young. It was always nerve-wracking to my hubs and me. My boys liked speed. And, action. Riding on that turtle paced vehicle with the muffled sounding guide was always like sitting on a time bomb. I always imagined it was only been a matter of time before my boys would try to jump off. Or, rush the zoo guide. Or, something.
The zoo was as packed as the parking lot. We weaved our way through the crowds. We headed towards the bears first. They always thrilled the masses. This day was no different. It really doesn’t matter if they’re just lying around idle or if they’re jumping in their pools of water; they’re majestic to see. Such amazing creatures. We moved along from exhibit to exhibit. We saw the lions and giraffes and zebras. We walked through the Tropic World – a huge, open concept building which made you feel as tho you were hiking through the jungles of Africa and rain forests of Asia. We saw dolphins and seals swimming and jumping and diving. And, baby wolves. And, tigers. And, aardvarks and otters.
As we made our way from one exhibit to the other, I looked around and realized that it was not only the zoo that had remained the same, but the people visiting the zoo, also. I saw a lot of moms with strollers. There were a few preschool groups. And, young families with toddlers. You could tell if the adults accompanying the children were their parents or grandparents by the looks on their faces. Grandparents were delighted to be there. Parents were a bit overwhelmed and frazzled.
Overall, the zoo was filled with the same kind of visitors as it always had been. There were young mom’s trying to soothe crying babies. There were young siblings who were fighting one moment and suddenly amazed at what they were looking at the next. There were overly tired kids that looked sweaty and tired. They were whining and pleading for candy and soda and souvenirs. Young children scurried from animal to animal while frantic parents tried to keep count of everyone. Nothing had changed. Except, me. I was no longer that young mom with three, energetic boys in tow. It no longer took the team of both parents to make the zoo outing a success. I was middle-aged now. My boys were grown. I no longer had to worry about temper tantrums or squabbling siblings. It was a bittersweet moment looking around and seeing how time had stolen those early days from me.
I looked over at my son walking next to me and saw the little boy from 25 years ago that used to hold my hand and skip along. He had grown up and was now taller than I was. I thought back on my sweet memories fondly but knew without a doubt that I was glad to be exactly where I was in life. I was glad not to be riding that tram. Not for the same reasons as years ago, but because walking the zoo felt good. It was wonderful to be enjoying the same grounds I wandered years ago. This time with my son who was now grown. We enjoyed it on a different level and for different reasons. We celebrated the wonder of the animals and the places from which they originated. For several hours we walked the grounds of the zoo enjoying the great weather. Each others company. And, the animals.