Going outside isn’t always about going outside—it’s also about freedom. What one woman learned from the #52hikechallenge.
Just about anyone can find a place that is wild in their area, whether that’s a patch of grass on campus, a tree-filled park, or a full-on nature preserve, but heading to these spaces is about more than the search for fresh air. For people with chronic illnesses like me, taking the opportunity to get outside is about feeling well enough to do so, or at least telling whatever today’s symptoms are to shove it. That’s pretty much my mantra.
In January, I decided I’d had enough of my completely unpredictable IBS and endometriosis. The two combine to cause intestinal distress and the kind of cramping that can make you pass out. I was sick of scrolling by Instagram posts of people out West having the time of their lives outdoors while I sat at home mainlining Advil, stomach meds, and a heating pad. I wanted to get outside more. The hashtag #52hikechallenge kept popping up in my social feeds, and I coveted the weekly summits and the amazing community created by these people who actively decided to go outside once a week—every week—for an entire year. But I had a problem… or three. My two chronic illnesses were major hurdles, but so was the very word “hike.”
Was this really a hike? I only saw two people the entire 1.5-hour walk, but the sound of the highway and frequent paved road crossings took away from the natural setting.
To me, hiking meant elevation. It required a water bottle, stamina, and views for miles at the top. As a Chicagoan, I had assumed for months that this just wasn’t possible due to the local geography. Combine that with my frequent need for a bathroom and I was pretty persuaded that I couldn’t hike two weeks in a row, nonetheless 52.
But I was finally fed up with sitting idly by and turned to the Women Who Hike Midwest Facebook group. I posed a question: “Is it even possible to do the challenge in the Midwest? I live in Chicago and have a car, but I don’t want to spend half a day driving to hike for an hour.” I signed off and went about my day. When I checked back later I had my answer. Several local ladies had replied that they too had similar queries but had quickly found that anyone, anywhere, can partake in the challenge. They clued me in to the 10 or so forest preserves within my own county and also mentioned that the challenge rules were very loose on what technically makes up a hike.
While the Midwest does have much lower elevation than most of the states to our west, we have truly incredible wild places that are worth checking out. And for urban dwellers like me, getting out there just requires a bit of a drive and a longer time commitment.
After seeing the other hikers' replies, I immediately signed off Facebook and looked up the address of my nearest forest preserve. I tossed a first aid kit, Nalgene, and roll of toilet paper into a pack, leashed my dog Norah, and drove south. That day, I did my first #52hikechallenge at Arie Crown Forest, just 29 minutes from my West Side apartment on a good traffic day. The trails range from short paved stints to five unpaved miles, depending on your route. I could hear and see the Stevenson Expressway for one-quarter of the park and then it quieted down where the preserve butts up against suburban backyards. As I walked following Norah’s ecstatic sniffing, I was conflicted. Was this really a hike? I only saw two people the entire 1.5-hour walk, but the sound of the highway and frequent paved road crossings took away from the natural setting. When we left, Norah and I were both stoked to have walked off road, and I nursed mounting hopes that I could continue the weekly hiking goal.
To get a better picture of my chances of success, I dug into the challenge rules. They clearly state that the whole point of the challenge is to get people outside in whatever capacity that means for each individual. For the organizers, there is no official definition of a hike. In fact, they support just getting out for a longer walk in your neighborhood and would count this typically easy feat as one week down out of 52.
Once I started, I quickly learned to adjust my personal terms around the word “hike.” When a weekend rolls around and it’s time to get out, I might end up walking a raised bike trail with some landscaping in lieu of a real escape from urbanity. It’s not that I don’t want to go to a multiple-mile forest preserve to enjoy actual wildness. Often my stomach doesn’t instill confidence that I will make a 45-minute car ride without a sudden need to stop on the side of the road. While I have no problem taking care of business in the woods, it’s not always easy when you're hiking off the side of a highway or in a high-traffic area.
Without the challenge, I wouldn’t call many of my weekly jaunts hikes, but rather strolls through some kind of quasi-wilderness. Sometimes I don’t even wear my Oboz boots as there’s no need for extra ankle support on paved walks. On week five I was having major gut problems and couldn’t trust myself in the car. Instead, I waited until evening when I was feeling a little better and walked Norah a mile to the dog park and a mile back. I was on sidewalks the entire way, wearing zero technical gear. But I still got outside. I consider it a victory and added it to my hiking log.
We’re seeking the beauty and relaxation of the wild, along with proving to ourselves that we can master our busy schedules, shut down negative thoughts (and symptoms), and get out into some wild.
When you’re in good health, you may crave rest on the weekends, but when you never know if you’re going to feel like crap, you have to take advantage of your alright moments. Having the #52hikechallenge in the back of my mind all week gives me something to look forward to. After all, planning a trip is often a big part of the fun. Picking a trail helps motivate me to resist eating food that can lay me up for a few days. Plus, I never would have found amazing local parks and trails without the challenge. Every weekend, I slip out of bed in the early hours when most urbanites haven’t awoken and the roads are clear. Many people head into the city to enjoy brunch and shopping, but I head in the opposite direction toward open space and forests.
We can’t always have that 14-er summit or untouched forest adventure, but that makes city-jaunts even more precious. If I can do the #52hikechallenge and motivate my questionable guts to get outside every weekend for some exploration, anyone can. Take a two-mile walk along a local bike path or wander the shores of a lake or ocean. Do your exercise at a grassy park.
Thousands of people across the world are partaking in this challenge, and I’m sure they’re not all after the medal you can buy after completing all 52 hikes. Instead, involvement in this type of movement is about personal accountability. We’re seeking the beauty and relaxation of the wild, along with proving to ourselves that we can master our busy schedules, shut down negative thoughts (and symptoms), and get out into some wild.
It’s not just the smell of the seasons and the feel of snowflakes or sun on my face that draw me outside. The freedom to roam while I ignore my churning and cramping insides pulls me back to whatever wild spaces I can find. I’m on week 10 of the challenge and I can’t wait to keep it up for another 42. Happy trails.