In the Service of Nature

Tucson Lifestyle (December 2021) by David Abbott

We often thank our military veterans for their service around the globe, but hiking enthusiasts in Arizona have another reason to appreciate vets — for their service as stewards of the Arizona Trail (AZT), through a new program designed to get them out into the wilderness.

The Arizona Trail Association, a nonprofit established in 1994 to manage the AZT, has created a program called Veteran Engagement & Trail Stewardship (VETS) designed to help vets enjoy the healing aspects of the state’s natural wonders.

“We’re building a section this fall near Patagonia that will be completed by veterans only,” says Michael Chappell, who has headed the program since February. “We hope this small slice of the AZT will put VETS and its crews on the map.”

According to Chappell, “The VETS crews do whatever is necessary or required for any particular section of the AZT. The 800-plus miles of the Arizona National Scenic Trail are as varied as they are challenging in relation to trailwork. For example, this year’s fall events will revolve around building a brand-new section of trail in Temporal Gulch Canyon, which includes clearing, brushing, establishing tread, etc. We also host Veteran Volunteer Work Weekends throughout the year, which are very similar, but usually in shorter formats and mainly focus on trail maintenance. And we just completed the Program’s first veteran and supporter event at Gabe Zimmerman trailhead, where we joined forces with the local military advocate community to fix the damage done by the monsoonal rains this year in Davidson Canyon.”

Chappell, a Tucson native and Navy veteran who served in Iraq, has had a rich and varied career, working as an EMT and in veterinary medicine. More recently, he was involved with outdoor businesses in the Tucson area.

Through that work, he was introduced to “trail guru” Mark Flint, the former trails program coordinator for Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation, under director Steve Anderson.

A trail-seasoned veteran with decades of experience, Flint’s fingerprints are on trails throughout the country. His work can be seen in Pima County’s Maeveen Behan Trail and Sweetwater Preserve in addition to trails in the Superior area as mitigation for the Resolution Copper project at Oak Flat.

“When Chappy told me about this program, I jumped all over it,” Flint enthuses. “The trails community is very diverse, and the more we can do to make it even more diverse, the better.”

Flint currently serves as a regional steward for the southern portion of the AZT. His consulting business, Southwest Trail Solutions, played a big role in designing and building the section from the border to Saguaro National Park East.

“I was up to my neck in that project,” he recalls, “putting in at least 30 hours a week, recruiting volunteers, setting up, going out, marking the trail, organizing events and training crew leaders. I loved it, but it was a lot of work.”

Flint feels a close connection to the VETS program, given his service in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970 as a Navy journalist. His life’s odyssey has taken him from Southern California to rural Oregon, where he spent time cowboying, to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he worked as a journalist.

While in the Bay Area in the 1990s, he began advocating for mountain bikers to gain access to trails.

“I got into mountain biking because it was a way I could get out in nature,” he reflects. “Back then, mountain bikers needed to earn their way on the trails. I volunteered a lot and went to all kinds of workshops and soaked up everything I could.”

In 1997, Flint and his wife moved to Tucson where he established himself as a reliable leader and volunteer in the local trail scene.

But his life was not without difficulties, as he was dealing with untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“When I came back, I learned not to talk about it,” Flint notes. “When I did talk about it, it was all fun and games, but I never told anybody about the nightmares.”

He credits his time outdoors, with some help from the VA, for helping him become grounded and believes VETS can do the same for others who might be suffering.

“The thing that I enjoy about this is you can relax a little bit, and you’re with people who have a shared experience,” he says. “These are people who’ve been trained to see what needs to be done, to do it and work as a team.”

The Arizona Trail is one of 11 federally recognized National Scenic Trails, stretching 800 miles from the Mexican border to Utah. Completed in 2011, the AZT is the brainchild of the late Dale Shewalter, who moved to Arizona in 1974 and fell in love with the desert. In 1985, he hiked from Nogales to the Utah state line, demonstrating that it was possible.

He became the AZT’s first paid coordinator, but died in January 2010, a little less than two years before the trail was completed. His legacy remains intact, though, through the existence of the trail and in the hearts of its volunteers.

The trail consists of 43 “passages,” and visits 36 towns along the way. The Southern Arizona portion from Nogales to Oracle traverses approximately 227 miles through two “sky islands” — the Santa Ritas and the Santa Catalinas. Thru-hiking the AZT generally takes five to eight weeks.

To bring more experience to his endeavor, Chappell recruited third-generation Arizonan Armando Gonzalez, a trail steward in the Patagonia region since 2013. The retired Arizona Air National Guardsman recently joined VETS as a way of giving back to his brothers and sisters in arms.

“I don’t think people really know what kind of a gem we have,” Gonzalez asserts. “You see the entire diversity of the state, from grasslands down near Patagonia, all the way up to the Grand Canyon.”

Gonzalez’s grandparents were Arizonans before Arizona was a state, and his military experience has deep Tucson roots. He recently retired from the Arizona Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing after a 34-year career.

“There’s something about walking off a war and being in nature,” Gonzalez says. “When you’re thru-hiking, you spend a lot of time walking and what are you doing? You’re just thinking things through.”

Additionally, he says, people and communities can have a healing effect.

“The biggest part isn’t nature specifically, it’s the interaction with communities along the way. It restores your faith in humanity. I think that’s the biggest takeaway.”

To Gonzalez, the Tucson area is the most unique region, being the only large metropolitan area near the trail. The transition from the grasslands to the Sonoran Desert up to the higher elevations of the Santa Catalina Mountains creates a lot of “firsts” for thruhikers.

But ultimately, the VETS program is about stewardship of a national treasure and camaraderie.

“I love anybody that does the trail because they’re my tribe,” Gonzalez concludes. “But when you get veterans involved, people who served their country, that takes it to another level for me.” 

For information on upcoming events, or to learn more about the AZT, go to

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