Three monolithic red rocks stand alone in the Arizona desert night
Ganapathy Kumar/Unsplash

5 Things I Learned Walking Across Arizona

An Arizonian sees his state through new eyes

Author Tom Zoellner hiked the length of the 790-mile Arizona Trail to get to know his home state a little better. He ended up learning some unexpected lessons along the way. (And writing a book about it.) 


Water is magic

Its seasonal pulses carve ravines and canyons. Its contracting freezes sculpt granite boulders. Its downpours turn washes into tunnels of cottonwoods. To come upon an active spring is to see only a tiny part of an immense underground vascular system. Lack of water is a foundation stone of state politics, and attempts to make parts of central Arizona as green as Vermont is a powerful display of engineering and imagination, hubris and folly. And when you run low on drinking water and feel the dark tug of dehydration setting it, you never think of it in the same way again. It is both motor oil and cocaine.


Elevation counts

Hernán Cortés was supposed to have answered a question about the topography of Mexico by crumpling up a map into a ball: here was a place too jumbled to understand. Arizona can seem that way in its collision of three major deserts and dozens of formidable mountain ranges scarred across arid lands. But at high points along the trail, you can spy neighboring ranges, even mountains behind mountains, where the puzzle of distinctive geology begins to make sense. There is a peak in the Mazatzal Range from which you can see the Superstitions and the San Francisco Peaks all in one vista, an astonishing panorama of the state’s midsection. It’s almost like perceiving the curvature of Earth from an airplane.


Lines are arbitrary

The straight lines of Trans-Mississippi states set by Congress in the 19th century famously slice through rivers and ranges like laser beams, separating natural ecosystems with hard political boundaries. Nowhere do you see the capricious results of this geometry better than Arizona, where the northern border at 37 north latitude is a legacy of the Compromise of 1850 that sought to curb slavery’s expansion, and the southern border, shaped like the runner of a rocking chair, is a hastily drawn surveyor’s line made after the Gadsden Purchase three years later that gave the U.S. the river port of Yuma and let Mexico keep the entirety of the Sea of Cortez. The Arizona Trail ends on this border, where the humanitarian disaster of border-crossing deaths continues to unfold.


Focus is overrated

The phrase “hike your own hike” is a piece of trail wisdom shared among long-distance walkers that is repeated so often it might as well be a fragment of holy scripture. There is no one ideal base weight, perfect piece of gear, or killer prescription to avoid cramps. Everyone must experience the trail in their own way, guided by their own interior music. And yet, I’d like to make a suggestion to ultralight obsessives trying to finish as fast as their feet will carry them. Take a second to see what you’re walking through. Pause at the rim. Read a bit about the landscape. Learn the name of that cactus. Otherwise, you might as well be walking ovals around the high school track.


Solitude is a practice

Other long-distance hiking routes, like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, are known for their sociability and sense of linear community, where somebody’s trail name might be known hundreds of miles in both directions. The Arizona Trail is not like that: You can go several days without seeing anybody else. For those who like companionship, it can be unnerving to spend night after night in the midst of unsettled country where you might be the only human being within miles. But this begins to feel comfortable, and even normal after a short while. It’s then that you begin to feel part of something bigger.


Order your copy of Rim to River today!

Subscribe to Orion Ad

Tom Zoellner is a fifth-generation Arizonan, former staff writer for the Arizona Republic, and the author of eight nonfiction books, including Island on Fire, which won the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award, and Rim to River: Looking into the Heart of Arizona.