Dale Shewalter Remembered

by John Nelson, May 2020

The other day was Dale’s birthday. I can’t believe he’d be seventy now. He’ll always be about thirty for us.

This morning we listened to Irish music and had sourdough pancakes in his honor.

Lisa and I met Dale in about 1978 when we lived next to each other in the two second-story apartments above an old historic house on Humphreys Street in Flagstaff across from St. Mary’s School. The house is owned by our friends Jene and Lynn Vredevoogd. Dale had just moved to Flag and, being an outdoor guy, we quickly became friends, hiking and camping together, running rivers, and yacking over campfires and in the backyard about what he called the “Great American Southwest – what a GAS!”, the place Dale and we were in love with.

Born and raised in Geneva, Illinois, Dale was the kid who loved to watch Hopalong Cassidy on Saturday mornings and dream of going West. After graduating high school in the late 60s’, he served in the Marine Corps, including a tough year in a mortar squad in Vietnam, which understandably affected him the rest of his life.

After his military time he returned to Illinois and attended Southern Illinois University in the early 70s’, and then, degree in hand, he accepted a job with a geologic exploration company in southern Arizona, working out of Tucson – and that’s where his love affair with Arizona began. In that job he saw southern Arizona as it was – a land of beauty, history and mystery – and he never forgot that; he lived it for the rest of his life.

After a few years of that work he lucked out and got his lifelong job teaching fifth grade elementary school in Flagstaff, so he loaded up his old white 1970 Dodge pickup and moved north. He’d never intended to leave southern Arizona, but once he got the job in Flag he quickly saw and came to love the diversity of Arizona – from desert to the peaks to the canyons – he was hooked.

In his teaching work, mostly at Weitzel Elementary School in East Flag, Dale was Mr. Shewalter, the serious and witty (punny!!) teacher students loved because he was task-on oriented toward giving them the best, most sensible and practical education they could receive. While they earned everything they needed to be successful in their coming school years, he also imbued them with a love for the outdoors at Camp Colton on the west side of the San Francisco Peaks and on field trips. For years, while we were at Friday night dinners with Dale and Madeline at Kachina Restaurant, Dale’s past students would come up to the table and say “hi.” They adored him. And parents would sign their children up several years ahead of the fifth grade to be sure Mr. Shewalter was their kids’ teacher. Frank Garcia and family, the owners of Kachina Restaurant, were among that group of parents, and they loved him. As Lisa Schnebly-Heidinger noted in her remembrance of Dale, it was always funny that while the rest of us at dinner would have a cold beer, Dale would not, even though he enjoyed it, as he didn’t want his young students coming to the table and seeing him with a drink. Those times of celebrating with a cold Mexican beer were saved for around the campfire, or with some good tequila, and then usually as a “Coronado Cooler” as we called it (invented on the western slope of the Huachuca Mountains near Coronado National Monument) – good tequila mixed with Hansen’s grapefruit soda. Mmmm good.

In our talks while hiking or sharing Friday night dinners at Kachina Restaurant we talked about how neat it would be to hike the length of the state. He talked about that with everyone who was interested, and by the early 1980s’ he had a plan to use his several months off from school to do the hike. He started scouting routes, including a bunch of time on the Mogollon Rim, which was one of his anchor points, and one of the best pictures of him is where he’s looking off the edge of the rim toward Tonto Basin and southern Arizona.

One summer in the mid-80s’, my wife Lisa and I took him down to the southern border near Nogales where he wanted to start his hike across the state. The night before the hike we went across the border to the store of his friend from his Tucson days, Alejandro Pimienta, where Dale and Alejandro talked like old friends. We bought some nice wool rugs and tequila and had a great time. The next morning he set off on his hike on the back roads across Arizona, an Arizona flag on the back of his Kelty pack, water stashed along the route, re-supply points figured out, living the dream.

That summer was hot, and Dale had a tough time with the heat but pressed on through Tucson, Florence, Globe, Payson, Strawberry, Long Valley, Mormon Lake, Flagstaff, Valle, the Canyon and on to Fredonia, stopping at local stores for a cold soda and making friends with everyone he met. Joe Longbotham, a UPS driver in the Payson area, told me on a trail work day around Flagstaff one time that he saw Dale on the road that first summer, several days in a row, and how he stopped and spoke with him, gave him water and treats, and that’s how Joe became interested in hiking, trails, and, eventually, the Arizona Trail.

Dale did it. With his beloved Irish tunes – the Chieftains, Enya, etc., humming The Lands Beyond, The Misty Mountains, and The Celts in his head, he crossed the state, south to north, and that’s when the idea was born for a single-track hiking and riding trail across the wonderful state of Arizona.