Jay Readey - Outer Belt image2_web
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Traveling the Outerbelt – a 210-mile journey by foot around the Chicago area

Flossmoor resident Jay Readey recently hiked the perimeter of the Chicago area on the Outerbelt, which mostly follows forest preserve trails around the region. Readey, a community development attorney, is a founder of the Outerbelt Alliance. He spoke with the H-F Chronicle about his two-week trip.

  Jay Readey of Flossmoor, left, takes a selfie with
  fellow hikers who made a trek this summer around
  the Outerbelt, a network of parks and preserves
  surrounding the Chicago metro area.
(Provided photo)

Flossmoor resident Jay Readey recently hiked the perimeter of the Chicago area on the Outerbelt, which mostly follows forest preserve trails around the region. Readey, a community development attorney, is a founder of the Outerbelt Alliance. He spoke with the H-F Chronicle about his two-week trip.

Can you give a brief description of the Outerbelt and your walk around it?
Hiking in the forest preserves and staring at maps, I had realized that there was one continuous loop around greater Chicago in natural spaces and on bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure like bike paths. I had explored much of it and scouted much more, but never hiked the whole thing.  Over 14 days, from May 29 to June 11, a group of us from the board of directors of the Outerbelt Alliance NFP, a new nonprofit group, hiked the entire 210 miles, camping in the Cook County Forest Preserves.
As far as you know, are you and your fellow hikers the first persons to make this walk?
Yes. It is kind of mind-boggling that no one has seen the connections between all the parks, preserves and bike paths before, but certainly GPS technology, Google maps and other disruptive new technologies have made this possible only in recent years. And because some of the connections are pretty overgrown or unexplored, we are confident this is a new thing and our trip was a virgin voyage.
What did you want to accomplish by this walk?
Three things: 1) show people how much nature is right here around us: 70,000 acres of forest preserves, larger than 16 of the 60 primary national parks; 2) model the ability to weave it into our regular lives; and 3) promote outdoor activity in and around the socially and racially diverse neighborhoods and communities of greater Chicago, which don’t necessarily look like the marketing pitch for outdoor recreation in America.
What surprised you the most about the walk?
It was life-changing in unexpected ways. I had been moving in a direction of more outdoor involvement in my own life, especially close to home, but the experience of the trip locked in that this is absolutely part of my identity, and I need the outdoors to be healthy and happy. Second, the social aspect of the trip in a group was mind-blowing. The people we met, the “trail magic” kindness we experienced, and the bonds we formed as a group unfolded in ways that couldn’t be predicted before the trip — but were probably the most valuable aspect of the experience.
Were there parts of the walk that were particularly memorable, either from a positive or negative perspective?
We had an overwhelmingly positive experience. Camping in the Cook County Forest Preserves is a totally underappreciated gem. And for my money, the best nature of the whole loop is in the South Suburbs, from Shabbona Woods in South Holland, where we camped several nights, around to Camp Bullfrog Lake in the Palos preserves. The south suburban parcels are huge, especially in Palos where the hilly terrain is a surprise to people who think that Chicagoland is flat — and with Shabbona, Bullfrog and Camp Sullivan, three great campgrounds. They’re the least-traveled spaces in the county too, which makes for rich discoveries. To be fair to the North Side, the Middlefork Savanna preserve in Lake County affords the longest hike without crossing a road and is memorable for its rich diversity of eco-types, and the stretch from the Botanic Gardens south through the North Branch, Magic Hedge, Lincoln Park Zoo and Peggy Notebaert Nature Center feels like a necklace of nature jewels.
Did you get rained on? What were the temperatures like? How about mosquitoes or other biting critters?
Yes, hot and yes! Actually, we were blessed with spectacular summer weather. The few powerful rainstorms seemed to occur when we were under cover or in our tents at night, and we only had heat even in the high 80s on the first couple days when our spirits and energy were high. Most of the trip was in the 70s and sunny. By early June, some of the less-traveled trails were pretty overgrown, so we got eaten up by stinging nettles, poison ivy, and other — not to mention the mosquitoes, which were present where the nature was wettest. But we were able to get through it all.
Did you cook along the way? I know you camped out but did you hike with your tents and sleeping bags?
Yes, we had camp stoves and used grills at some of the campgrounds. But to be fair, the lure of restaurants when you’re hiking in the metro is powerful. We ate very well around the Outerbelt. We started carrying tents and sleeping bags, but then spent several consecutive nights at the same campground — so many days we hiked lighter than the full load. Usually we would only carry everything when we moved from one campground to the next – and sometimes even then we would get help, since we used so many shuttles to coordinate the logistics between campgrounds and trailheads.
What’s the next step for the Outerbelt Alliance?
We’ve got lots to do to share the route with others, and bring on more board members and interns that represent the full diversity of the communities where we hiked. I think we’d like to make the group trip an annual thing, and recruit a larger group for next June that can involve different levels of ability and experience. We’ve got trail advocacy work to do, fundraising, publicity and storytelling. It is an amazing story to share, and we’re excited to bring the experience to others so people can jump on and try it out, in pieces or with the whole 210-mile loop.

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