Near the end of the long journey never before taken by human feet, the three remaining adventurers spied their final destination through the trees.
“Oh my God, you can see it!” said Emily Leu.
“There it is,” said Jay Readey.
“Keep going!” cried Molly Fitzgibbon.
And on they trekked through downtown Chicago Monday evening, to the place their adventure started, the towering water of Buckingham Fountain.
Fourteen days earlier, they’d embarked on a circuit of the metro area staying as close to natural trails as possible. They dubbed the route “The Outerbelt,” which as far as they know no one had ever walked in a sustained, linked way.
I wrote about them on that first day, when their tents were dry, and they loved their boots, and they estimated the route at 170 miles.
By Monday evening, along about mile 210, if they had to summarize their trip in one word, the word would be: surprise.
The good surprises, the ones they call trail magic, far outnumbered the bad.
There was the guy who passed them in a car, asked what they were doing, drove home and biked back to tell them his favorite nature spots. There were strangers who met them along the trail then walked with them for an hour, or a day. One man joined them for 60 miles. One night a friend showed up to cook vegetarian fajitas over the campfire.
“The best I’ve ever tasted,” Readey said.
Thunderstorms surprised them, and while that wasn’t all good, it wasn’t all bad. Even the hours they spent one stormy night sheltering under the overhang of a campground restroom had its charms.
“Serendipity was the most special thing about the trip,” said Readey.
From Buckingham Fountain, they trekked south along the lakefront to the Indiana border, then across and up, through the southern and western suburbs, then east to the North Shore before heading back to the city.
They passed by rivers and lakes, through parks, prairies, woods, setting up tents at night in Cook County Forest Preserve campgrounds and friends’ backyards. They listened to the wind, the birds, the rain and tried — tried — to stay off their cellphones.
But surprise also came in less benevolent forms.
On the first night of the trip, one of the original hikers learned that his father was in the emergency room. He left and wasn’t able to return.
On Day 2 of the journey, Fitzgibbon’s boots got drenched. She stuffed newspapers inside to soak up the water. When she removed the newspaper on Day 3, the sole of one boot fell off. Leu lent her a pair, which she was still wearing on Monday.
On another day, Leu discovered the hazards of wearing shorts on a narrow trail with spring in full flourish. Nettles, thorns and poison ivy stung her legs. Fitzgibbon plucked jewelweed from the woods and squeezed out the liquid as a salve for Leu’s pain, then fashioned knee guards for Leu out of neck gaiters.
“I looked like Punky Brewster,” Leu said.
Before the hike, the three hadn’t been close friends, but they quickly got to know each other well enough to settle on trail names.
Fitzgibbon, who was always happy to talk to strangers, was “The Ambassador.” Leu, who found cats all along the way, was “Catnip.”
They called Readey “Jay Strayed,” partly in homage to Cheryl Strayed, whose book “Wild” had helped inspire their trek, but also because he sometimes wandered off to take a phone call.
“One of the things I’ve loved,” Fitzgibbon said Monday, “is that at the ages we are, there are rarely occasions to get to know people, depend on people, the way we have.”
Fitzgibbon was the only one who went the distance without a break.
Readey, a lawyer, stepped off for a couple days to deal with work and take his family to a baseball tournament. Leu left the trail briefly, one day for her job at REI, another to celebrate her 30th birthday with her husband.
“I made some concessions,” Leu said. “But I came back for everything I could and my life didn’t fall apart.”
That’s one lesson they took from the journey: They could leave their jangling workday lives more readily than they thought without their worlds dissolving.
“I’ll own up to being pretty tired,” Readey said Monday, as he loped through the final leg of the trip.
He’d made the hike on two partially replaced knees. At one point, he left the trail to get better boots. His feet hurt.
But getting to know the city in this unique way was worth it.
“The surprises about connections — both human and natural — has been the point for me,” he said.
The hikers plan to create an interactive map that will make the trek accessible to others. It should soon be available on the web site of The Outerbelt Alliance: www.outerbelt.org.
But on Monday evening, that was a task for another day. When they reached Buckingham Fountain, Leu plucked a can of beer from her backpack, opened it with a celebratory flourish, and they split it three ways.
They figured they might cry later, thinking about each other and how far they’d traveled.
For now, though, they were ready to head home, sleep in a real bed, rest their feet and hope that their journey will help others understand how much natural beauty exists in the hard city, and how exploring it can soften us and toughen us in the best ways.
Mary Schmich is with the Chicago Tribune www.chicagotribune.com. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.