My involvement in the ARIZONA TRAIL Project
Tom Coulson 2017
I did my first “backpacking trip” at age 16 with my Dad and Brother. We always loved the great outdoors so Dad got each of us a “Camp Trails” backpack and we started going. Now at age 65 and several packs later, I still love it. The Arizona Trail had become an important part of my life because it has provided friendships, purpose, and access to this beautiful State.
My first awareness of the Arizona Trail was a little article in the Arizona Highways magazine (about 1992) that sparked my interest. I wrote to the US Forest service asking for information on the Trail. They sent me some maps of the proposed route and some basic information. Six years later I heard again about the Trail and looked up the phone number for the office. I called and talked to Larry Snead who was very enthusiastic. We agreed to meet for lunch at Monti’s in Tempe. He signed by up right there and I did my first work event down on Tiger Mine road near Oracle the next month. The very first person I met there was Merle Parmer. We were overnight camping in Oracle State Park. He invited me over to his camp to fill me in on the Arizona Trail. We talked for a long time, and the next day he showed me how to work on tread. I had found my purpose! We became friends and ultimately did many work events together from 1999 to 2006 So, I was mentored by Larry and Merle. I remember how proud I was to get the Arizona Trail “patch” as a thank you after my first work event. We used to give them out to volunteers in those days.
In those days 2000-2006 I did about 3 work events a year, from Canello Hills with Richard Corbett to the Kaibab plateau with Micheal Baker, Merle and Micheal Carr. We laid out the corridor from Winter road up to the Utah Border at Wire Pass and I really enjoyed it. Tom Folks from BLM was there too. Interestingly, we up there surveying the route when Micheal Fayhee was starting his thru-hike (one of the first to hike the trail and write a book about his adventure. It’s a great coffee table book, with photos by Gary Sieve of Arizona Highways magazine. I remember he had his dog with him in that first section. Several years later I got to backpack that section from Jacob Lake to the Utah Border. It sure felt good and brought back memories.
My first Segment as a Steward was Alamo Canyon. (Segment 19) It was 18 miles in those days, mostly using an old Jeep road and the Alamo wash itself. It ended down at BattleAxe road near Walnut canyon. We mostly tried to build tread in the southern section since we didn’t have approval to construct trail yet in the old mining district neat the Trail-head. That came later. Connie Lane was the FS Land Manager (great to work with). The first Segment Steward was Will Passow. He had hauled in 4×4 posts with the Arizona Trail “brand’ burned into the tops on two sides. He installed these along the jeep road going south. What a job he did! Years later, even though the brand was almost completely faded away, those posts were still solid, set into the hard desert rocky soil with post cement! Will was amazing, hard-working and determined. I really respect his efforts. Years later, I installed the smaller routed AZT symbol wooden signs onto those same post with a screw gun.
Many of the early AZT thru-hikers used the Alamo wash, an 18 mile stretch with huge rock cairns put together by Will Passow and his volunteer crews. About the year 2000, Carl Babcock, Helen Hill Merle Parmer and I GPS’d this entire segment in one long day. Four years later, Merle, Cindy Peck (US Forest Service) and I laid out the 1st re-route for the new trail to be built—finally out of the wash and off the jeep roads. When you go down there now, there is a nice trail-head, with a beautiful Arizona trail heading south, but it wasn’t always that way. We even had a large Boy Scout Eagle Scout work event down on the southern end to put in tread. Denny Heywood and I went in there advance of the work event and hauled picks, Mcleods, and Pulaski’s on 4 mules to support that work event. That was about 2002 or so. On one work event, we had the Arizona 4wd club haul in 5 of us with Backpacks and drop us off on the Orphan Boy mine road FR4, midway through the Segment. We put on the packs and each took a tool and worked our way south, improving the primitive trail as we went. We spent the night out and they picked us up on BattleAXE road the next day. I remember Helen Hill was on that adventure. Merle too. We got to combine a pack trip and beautiful views with a work event. Nice.
Merle, Larry Vogel (USFS), Cindy Peck and myself were pretty excited to finally get approval to lay out the new trail from the Will Passow Memorial spot at the Picket Post Trail-head heading south in 2003. Pin flagging the new corridor is a very scratchy job. Lots of mesquite, catclaw, and cholla cactus in this area We attempted to follow ATA guidelines for pitch and scenic views which required collaboration from all on the team but the experienced team worked well together. We ended up with a nice, user-friendly trail in this very challenging terrain. It is the closest section of the AZT to Phoenix.
Micheal Baker and his volunteer crew built a nice tie-in to SR60 (the highway between Apache Junction and Superior) from the Picket Post Trail-head. This piece was essential to connect the trail through a tunnel under the highway to segment 20 on the north side.
Now, that it’s built, it’s heavily used by day hikers and mountain bikers from the Phoenix area.
I also recall about 1999 a meeting at Eric Hisers house to discuss the legal format of the Arizona Trail Association. How would the organization grow and then maintain the structure as it continued to grow?
Nowadays we have a structured organization but in the early days, we were working to get that. One decision was to create “job descriptions” for the Executive Director and Chief Trail Steward. There were only a few of us there as I recall, Larry & Jan, Eric and a couple of Board Members. These decisions aided in the general direction of the future organizational structure.
2009 & 2010 found me focusing on “Close the Gap” work events. (My dog Chance loved being there) This is the section north of Flagstaff, finally approved for a route through the national forest around the Snow Bowl and north to Cedar Ranch. These were big, well-organized events coordinated by Gary and Gay Hohner along with Stewards Chambo & Beverly, Paul and Dorthy, Andrea and David Micheals, Shawn Redfield and many loyal volunteers. The “Peaks” Ranger District (especially Shawn Murphy) heavily supported these events and they were very powerful. Lots of trail was built, sometimes over 1⁄2 mile during a weekend work event. We typically had over 50 volunteers at these events. That was impressive. Flagstaff mountain bikers also helped build the trail and we all had a great time and moved a lot of basalt rock. This effort was key to getting the tread completed in Northern Arizona by the target date of 2-14-12. We had regular afternoon rains, lightning and thunder sometimes, but the work went on.
The Arizona Trail got a lot of nice publicity from these high profile volunteer events and many mountain bikers were on it as soon as we finished it. They were pretty happy about the trail too. I was happy my friends Mike Jefferson and Darrin Frost helped on these events and brought their sons to help too. Mike’s son Roman enjoyed it so much he went on to become a crew leader for ACE.
I think of early trail-builder volunteers who put in many hours to get the trail in place. Folks like Denny and Marie Heywood (whose mules hauled in many tools to remote places), Merle Parmer, Dave Babcock, Jan Hancock, Larry Snead, Chuck Horner. Also Carl Golnick, Helen Hill and Anna Pfender, Eric Smith, Dick and Diane Wertz, Mike Carr and many others.
I hope later trail builders, ATA Board members, and trail users can stop a minute and appreciated how much was done informally by early volunteers. This was using personal vehicles, tools and time without the benefit of fund-raising, meetings or formal training (it’s great that we have all that now though). Dale himself worked on many events. The early efforts (let’s say approximately 1985 to 2000) were key in these years to keep the momentum going, not only with volunteers but also with State and Federal Land managers. They were impressed and became strong supporter / partners.
Early trail stewards and volunteers were on a mission the get the route in and signed, even if the tread was incomplete. This is because it was already becoming popular with hikers and equestrians. The word got out with the internet in the late ninety’s and early stewards were getting calls and inquiries from lots of interested people before the trail was really in place. Also, it was the original goal of the Association to have the Trail completed by the year 2000. That proved to be too ambitious however we did manage (with the concerted efforts of many volunteers) to complete the tread by February of 2012. This was a monumental task and is my opinion is an example of the dedication and drive of the Stewards, Volunteers and the entire organization. So proud that we made the goal of completing the trail just in time the celebrations of Arizona’s 100th birthday as a State. Executive Director Dave Hicks provided strong leadership along with Larry Snead and Jan Hancock to get this National Recognition
The REI work events were always fun and inspirational. So many volunteers from all over working together on teams to build and improve the trail. We had some bad weather at times but what a great time we enjoyed getting the work done. Then, the tremendous satisfaction of walking back over completed trail the next day. On some occasions, I was lucky enough to get to stay over an extra night and happily got to see the new trail users already packing on the trail. “Hey did you know that we just built this section of trail this past weekend?” “No, but hey thanks for your work, this is great trail” Felt pretty good.
We had “Rendezvous” events each year for about 10 years over a weekend. These were held at Mormon Lake. I always enjoyed these. It was a chance for members to gather for inspiring activities and fellowship. It seemed like there was a lot of energy there, sort of a non-work event with plenty of action going on. Kids (and Grand-kids) loved it too. Quite a bit of planning for future events and recruiting happened as well. I do miss those but they were good times.
So now the Arizona Trail is a National Scenic Trail. It is a testament to volunteerism, cooperation among diverse personalities as well as pulling together Local, State and Federal organizations to accomplish a common goal. I’ve personally benefited from enjoying the work, the trail the friendships and memories and the sense of accomplishment. Getting to know, appreciate and respect the dedication and skills of others has been a great privilege. Dale Shewalter had a great vision and it has had a positive impact on many of us and will continue to do this for generations to come.
I was not a “founder” of the ATA. Probably more like the “second wave” of early supporters however I can honestly say that when I think of my professional work career, nothing gives me the sense of satisfaction that I get from seeing this vision, this idea, this project become reality and flourish. So glad it has been such an important part of my life.