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

Arizona-born author and journalist Tom Zoellner has released a new book about his 46-day journey along the nearly 800-mile Arizona Trail. Rim to River: A look into the heart of Arizona is a collection of essays Zoellner created to better understand his home state after years of conflict with Arizona’s sprawling cityscapes and divisive politics.

Bree Burkitt from KNAU spoke to him about what he learned on the trail.

Help our listeners understand what the Arizona Trail entails.
Tom Zoellner: Yes, the Arizona Trail is a 790-mile continuous path from the Utah border near the Vermillion Cliffs and meanders all the way down to the Mexico border near Coronado National Monument, which overlooks Sonora. It was compiled into state, federal, county, and private sections by the Flagstaff schoolteacher 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 gorgeous. It’s the southwest version of the Appalachian Trail, just with no traffic. It’s very easy to do the Arizona Trail for days and not see another living soul and 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 Republic of Arizona and had a lifelong dialogue – if not a falling out – with Arizona in which I truly appreciated its physical majesty and the fascinating people who lived there, but also with some doubts about what kind of sociology grew up in Arizona… My family has lived in Arizona since it was a territory. Before I became a state, my great-great-grandfather came to the Salt River Valley to plant 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 is of course there, it just keeps pulling you back.

The University of Arizona Press

Throughout the book, you take us on your journey from the northern terminus on the Arizona-Utah border to the southern terminus on the Arizona-Mexico border… Which sections did you enjoy the most?
It’s a cliché to say that Arizona is diverse. But it’s another thing to really experience that in advance and see the crumpled paper ball of our state’s creases and creases unfold as you walk along. . . That means if you walk towards Humphrey’s Peak – Doko’o’osliid in the Dine’ language – it’s like Frodo walking towards Mount Doom Lord of the Rings. It’s just great to see this approach. And the closer you get to the Alpine zone, on the northern slopes it’s really magical.

And so you began this walkthrough with the goal of correcting your relationship with Arizona and everything in it. How did this hike change that?
Love is complicated. And I love Arizona, but I love Starred Arizona. And the conversation was worth it.

Tom Zoellner, thank you for speaking to me today.
It’s an honor to be on KNAU. Thank you Bree

Zoellner will share more stories about his Arizona Trail adventures Tuesday night at the Brightside Bookshop in Flagstaff.


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