Impressions Of The Arizona Trail

Heidi, Stephen, and Sarah
Authors, Preservationists, Adventure Seekers

THREE AUTHORS SHARE THEIR THREE DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES ON ONE TRAIL…

Inspiration on the Arizona Trail

Heidi Elizabeth Blankenship

When does a thru-hiker's experience begin? I've been asked variations of this question a hundred times. For me, it began when I was growing up in Utah. In my teens, I read an article in the local newspaper about the American Discovery Trail and started dreaming. The idea of being outside for months on end, continuously walking, struck a chord in me that resounds to this day. 

Wilderness was always on my horizon when I was young. In college, the Pacific Crest Trail interested me and I fantasized about it. But life set in, as usual. The reality of paying off student loans occupied many years of my life after graduation. My dreams waited. I’ll admit to reading too much Thoreau. In his essay, Walking, he wrote: “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk.” I wasn’t ready.

Heidi On The Arizona Trail Border Line

Heidi On The Arizona Trail Border Line

Still dreaming of a long hike, my career as a ranger began with my first job out of college. I worked at Goblin Valley State Park, then Dead Horse Point State Park. My ranger addiction continued to include backcountry jobs at four Bureau of Land Management offices in Utah as well as at Canyonlands and Grand Canyon National Parks. Somewhere between parks, in 2010, my mother died unexpectedly. It was a complete shock and a call to action. Life is so short, every second is a precious gift. It was time to walk.

In the years following college, this once-mountain girl had fallen in love with the desert. The Arizona Trail appealed to me more than any other trail. I decided 2011 would be my year, but then all my backpacking gear was stolen in Moab, Utah during my winter migration in 2010. I accepted a job on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park in 2011 and used every extra cent to replace the gear I’d need to hike the trail in 2012. 

Thru-hiking buddies helped me plan my trip. I hiked solo for all but 50 miles. There is nothing like letting one’s mind go while hiking a long trail. I lost my skin and became a stronger version of myself, more centered, my spirit merging with the Universe. The connection that formed between my feet, the earth, and my heart, is something I cherish.

Not many thru-hiked as early as I did that year. I hiked south to north and saw one other northbound thru-hiker (and a biker) and two southbound. I met others out for day trips. I recall a group of women who stopped me for conversation. They asked if I was writing a book and, ironically, I scoffed at the absurdity, although I did write poetry during the whole hike. In 2015, I completed a book of poetry and artwork memorializing the trip as a thank you gift for those who helped me along the way. The book, Memorizing Shadows, found a publisher in 2017 at Shanti Arts.

In the years following my thru-hike, I have ventured back along with parts of the Arizona Trail. When you step onto the trail, your feet instantly connect to all 800 miles, no matter how far you walk. There is magic in that truth, dreams awaiting realization, and also a profound feeling of gratitude to the land and those who work to keep the path open to travelers.

The Arizona Trail:  Passages in Poetry

Stephen N. Chaffee

Canelo Hills

stellar canvas atop hill 6257

a cartographer’s Mona Lisa

with knolls   buttes

canyons and draws

grasslands   mesas

springs and bogs

a feast for contemplation

Steve On The Arizona Trail

Steve On The Arizona Trail

On Christmas morning in 1956, my younger brother and I found two homemade backpacks under the tree.  The backboard frames were constructed of oak and webbing with an Army Surplus knapsack slung over the frame uprights.  The following summer, with backpacks loaded, we marched six miles to Trap Lake in the central Washington Cascade Mountains.  Like typical kids, we kept asking dad, “Are we almost there?”  At the lake, I yanked in a wriggling fish with nearly every cast.  That weekend we ate crispy fried trout for dinner and breakfast.  What not to like!  I was hooked.  Over the following years, we shared many outdoor adventures and misadventures in the Cascade foothills and mountains.

After high school and military service, I completed the outdoor recreation program at the University of Washington College of Forest Resources.  This was followed by a 29 year-long career as a National Park Service ranger.  Olympic National Park was my favorite duty station with its rain forests, alpine meadows, snow-capped peaks, and coastal wilderness. 

Ultimately, twenty years of rain, fog, and minimal sunshine took a toll. It was time for a change and new beginnings.  My wife Lahna and I retired to the arid climes of southern Arizona.

Then one March morning in 2011, we were reading the Arizona Daily Star when Lahna said, “Steve, here’s something for you.  The Arizona Trail Association and REI are hosting a trail work event near Colossal Cave.  They’re including a full breakfast and lunch.  You like to eat; you know trail work; YOU should GO!”  So I did.  I met a Mr. Lee Allen, an Arizona Trail (AZT) steward.  Lee invited me to join his band of “Thursday Crazies.”  I found the trail work rewarding and the camaraderie refreshing.  I enjoyed hearing their trail stories.  I decided to give the AZT a go.

Hiker On The AZT

Hiker On The AZT

After hiking the Las Colinas and Canelo Hills passages, I was hooked on the Sonoran Desert with its sky islands (mountains), grand vistas, blue skies, starry nights, gorgeous sunsets and sunrises.  Soon, two goals emerged:  section hike the 800-mile trail and craft at least one poem for each of the 43 named passages.  This set in motion a re-invention of self and purpose.  Over the next four years, I solo backpacked the AZT in both directions to maximize the experience, to write poetry that captured the essence of my journey. 

Upon returning home from each hike, I rose from bed at 4:00 a.m. to write and rewrite my poems.  When "finished," I shared them with fellow poets.  Their honest feedback helped me grow as a poet-adventurer.  The backpacking, writing, and sharing became a rewarding cycle of reflection and anticipation.

Writing and publishing Passages in Poetry in 2018 has given me a platform for sharing my sojourn with others at multiple venues.  For me, the adventure lives on.

I thank the Arizona Trail Association for their vision, drive, and dedication.  The Arizona National Scenic Trail is truly a world-class wildland wonder.

Pedaling Home on the Arizona Trail

Sarah Ruth Jansen

Until a few years ago my entire adult life had been an ultra-endurance race. In my 20's I had completed a Ph.D., published scholarly work, earned a USA Cycling Pro License and won the California State Mountain Bike Championships.

However, I soon became bored with formulaic USAC races around an artificial racecourse. And the tenure-track was starting to feel the same. I craved adventure, the unexpected and the unknown. So, on the heels of my 31st birthday, I entered the Tour Divide Race, a 2,745-mile off-pavement bicycle race from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide. Completely self-supported, I finished the race in three weeks, averaging 125 miles a day. Toward the end of Tour Divide, my crank arms fell off of my bicycle, causing me to lose the female leaders. Undeterred, I hitchhiked 80 miles to a bike shop, where I was able to reattach my crank arms and continue on. 

Sarah During The Arizona Trail Race

Sarah During The Arizona Trail Race

But after the race, other things started to break, things within me. For the first time, I realized I was exhausted. Ironically, the insane pace of adventure racing forced me to confront the senseless speed of my own life. Why was I moving so fast, tearing up mountains, hurtling toward tenure and breaking my bike, and myself, in the process? What could possibly be won by all this busyness, except more of the same? I felt like I was missing something. In truth, I was missing everything.

I heeded these feelings and decided to downshift. I cut my workload in half. I lived in British Columbia and biked in the freezing rain. Deprived of my customary busyness, I became more and more depressed. Finally, I experienced a breakdown, followed by a breakthrough. I began to see the world again, the way I saw it when I was a young child – beautiful, fascinating, magical and deserving of all my love and attention. I decided I wanted to be here for my one and only life, rather than leaping over all the hurtles busy people had set up for me. 

And that is how I ended up in my last bicycle race, the Arizona Trail Race – a trail bike race from Mexico to Utah along the 800-mile Arizona Trail. My earliest childhood memories were formed in the Sonoran Desert of Tucson. I needed to go home. 

Desert Beauty

Desert Beauty

I started the race with about 60 other people. I like people. In fact, I like people as much as I like nature. After all, human beings are part of nature – wonderfully complex and interesting and awe-inspiring. Plus, being around people who are doing wild things brings out the wildness within them. And that's the part that I most like about people. Every person has a wild and joyous part of themselves; you just have to look for it. All of this is to say that I preferred pedaling the Arizona Trail with other wild people, rather than riding it as a solitary person. 

Despite my racer-y past, I did not obsess about my daily mileage. I truly “enjoyed the ride” and, in the process, rediscovered my home-state. What started in a mess of mesquite and saguaros (with cicadas beating my eardrums and the sun baking my skin) ended in snow and rain on the Kaibab Plateau, with mule deer skipping alongside me. Thank you Arizona Trail for showing me how to enjoy the ride!

 

More About The Authors:

Poet, artist, and wanderer, Heidi Elizabeth Blankenship is the author of “Memorizing Shadows: Inspiration from the Arizona Trail” (Shanti Arts 2017). Her second book of poetry, “Stone Wishes on the Colorado Plateau,” is forthcoming. She lives in Arizona where works as a wilderness ranger by day and a poetry editor for Deep Wild Journal by night. Find her website at www.heidibug.com

Steve Chaffee served in the Navy’s submarine service before completing a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources.  Both experiences significantly contributed to his long career as a National Park Service ranger.  Now retired, Steve and his wife, Lahna, make their home in Green Valley, Arizona. Steve’s poems have appeared in the Connection (Southern Arizona’s open forum community journal), The Avocet Journal of Nature Poetry, Ana Flores’ Poetry of the Wild, and Green Valley’s Poets’ Corner Rounding the Corner, an anthology. Steve’s book, The Arizona Trail -- Passages in Poetry, was published in 2018.

Sarah Ruth Jansen practices and teaches philosophy in Tucson, Arizona, where she lives with her beagle-chihuahua, Teddy. She is the author of Pedaling Home: One Woman’s Race Across the Arizona Trail. You may follow her at www.sarahruthjansen.com