Author Tom Zoellner hiked 800 miles to find the heart of Arizona

KNAU (March 21, 2023) by Bree Burkitt

Arizona-born writer and journalist Tom Zoellner is out with a new book about his 46-day journey hiking the nearly 800-mile Arizona Trail. Rim to River: Looking into the Heart of Arizona is a collection of essays Zoellner created as a way to better understand his home state after years at odds with Arizona’s sprawling urban landscapes and divisive politics.

KNAU’s Bree Burkitt spoke with him about what he learned on the trail.

For our listeners, help us understand what the Arizona Trail entails.
Tom Zoellner: Yes, the Arizona Trail is a 790-mile continuous path from the border at Utah near the Vermillion cliffs, and winds its way down all the way to the Mexican border near the Coronado National Monument, which looks into Sonora. It was pieced together in sections from state, federal, county and private land by Flagstaff school teacher named Dale Shewalter, who began this Herculean effort in the 1980s. And it took more than two decades to complete, but what’s there is absolutely magnificent. It’s the Southwest version of the Appalachian Trail, except without the traffic. It’s very easy to do the Arizona Trail for days on end and not see another living soul and to be alone with your thoughts.

Tell me what prompted this journey along the Arizona Trail.
I grew up in Arizona, was educated in Arizona worked for the Arizona Republic, and I’ve had a lifelong dialogue — if not an argument with Arizona — really appreciating its physical majesty and the intriguing people that lived there, but also with some doubts about what kind of a sociology was growing in Arizona…My family has been in Arizona since it was a territory. before statehood, my great-great-grandfather came to the Salt River Valley to farm cotton…And so I can’t seem to stay away from the Grand Canyon State. It’s like that old metaphor about quitting drinking, you know, “Oh, it’s easy. I’ve done it five times.” Edward Abbey…said the same thing about leaving Arizona…you know, the irony there is of course, it just keeps drawing you back.

Throughout the book, you take us with you as you travel from the northern terminus, which is on the Arizona-Utah border, to the southern terminus, which is on the border of Arizona and Mexico… What portions did you most enjoy?
It’s a cliche to say that Arizona is diverse. But it’s another thing to really experience that up front and to see the crumpled paper ball of our state’s crinkles and wrinkles unfold as you go along. . . So that said, as you walk towards Humphrey’s Peak — Doko’o’osliid in the Dine’ language —it’s like Frodo walking towards Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings. It’s just really magnificent to see that approach. And as you get closer into the Alpine zone, on the northern slopes, it really is quite magical.

And so you started this thru-hike with the goal of rectifying your relationship with Arizona and all within it. How did this hike change that?
Love is complicated. And I love Arizona, but I love Arizona with a lot of asterisks. And it was worth having the conversation.

To listen to the radio interview, click here.