JOLIET – Five days in the wilderness. No bathrooms. No showers. Carrying 50 pounds of gear in backpacks. And spending that time with unfamiliar people.
Only one reason could induce Cheri Johnson to brave it.
“I wanted to see if I could do it,” said the 63-year-old Joliet resident.
Johnson, executive assistant to Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow, said she spent five days hiking 8 to 15 miles a day up mountains – sometimes rising at 2:30 a.m. to do so – and scrambling over loose rocks.
“It was the most amazing thing I’ve done in my life and it was the hardest thing I’ve done,” she said.
Shelli Johnson, founder of Epic Life at yourepiclife.com and no relation to Cheri Johnson, defined “epic” as “something so hard you’re not sure you can do it.” Shelli said she started Epic Life after she sold her former business – Yellowstone Journal Corporation & National Park Trips – and decided to reinvent herself.
“I was overweight about 30 pounds. I was depressed. I was sedentary, which people can’t believe,” Shelli said. “I had been so stressed I wasn’t taking care of myself.”
So Shelli took several of her own epic hikes to challenge herself physically and emotionally and found she returned “better than I was before,” she said. Eventually, Shelli became a certified professional coactive coach and began taking other women on guided epic hikes.
These hikes are geared toward women in good health, mainly in their 40s and 50s, who have been “striving their whole lives and want to consciously create what comes next.” These women are “looking to crank it up” and “do something unexpected and adventurous.”
Shelli said the average woman who signs up is 47, although some women are younger. Cheri was the oldest woman so far to participate in Shelli’s guided epic adventure, and she did well, Shelli said.
“She has the energy of a 30-year-old. She was wonderful,” Shelli said. “She was so enthusiastic and had a lot of energy and a really positive outlook. She trained very hard for this. She was very capable.”
Cheri said she learned about the epic hikes when an out-of-state friend posted photos of her epic hike on Facebook. Spellbound by the beautiful scenery, Cheri messaged her friend and asked for more information.
After Cheri contacted Shelli, they met in person when both women had business in Chicago. Cheri learned that professional guides accompany women on the hikes and understood the epic hike had nothing in common with the nice vacations and cruises she enjoyed taking.
Although she had worked out for years, Cheri said she began CrossFit to increase her endurance. She also walked with weighted backpacks and practiced the exercises Shelli recommended to build up her leg muscles.
I kept pushing myself,” Cheri said. “I was compelled to do it.”
Cheri said she had grown up on a farm. She shod horses and helped in the fields. She wasn’t afraid of getting dirty, she said. But her determination left family and friends scratching their heads.
“I just wanted to see this beautiful country up close. I wanted to experience it,” Cheri said.
On July 24 – the day after her 45th class reunion at Newark Community High School – Cheri flew out to Jackson Hole, Wyoming where she met the other women, and enjoyed a nice lunch and dinner with them. Under the direction of the mountain guides, whom they also met, the women repacked their suitcases to lighten their loads, since every bit of garbage they used would also wind up in those backpacks, Cheri said, even the wipes they’d use for quick “showers.”
“It’s not like there was garbage cans where you could throw things away,” Cheri said.
The real adventure began the next day. They climbed into a large van at 6 a.m., drove for 90 minutes on a paved road and then stopped at a store to use cellphones and bathrooms, Cheri said. That stop, she added, was the end of civilization.
No turning back
After that, it was roads full of potholes and Wyoming traffic jams (cattle crossing the road) until they came to a parking area.
The women climbed out, put on their backpacks and set out single file down a narrow path.
They scaled creeks by climbing trees, pitched tents near water sources, purified their water, wore mosquito netting, prepared simple meatless meals, endured altitude sickness and learned to take a shovel with them on “bathroom” breaks, Cheri said.
It isn’t for everyone, Cheri said, but she’s glad she did it.
“I’ll never forget the sense of accomplishment and just how – oh my God – gorgeous this beautiful country is,” Cheri said.
At the end of their adventure, the women celebrated in Jackson Hole with a big dinner.
“We were all starved for meat. I think I had bison or something,” Cheri said. “But we all just ate. And I actually picked up my plate when I was done and licked it.”