Dust billows among the clanking of hand tools in Northern Arizona. A crew of trail workers who have devoted a summer to the backcountry work quickly to finish one of the last sections of the nearly 800 mile Arizona Trail. The Trail in it’s entirety crosses the length of the state, North to South, from the Southern Utah to the Mexican border. In 2009 the Arizona Trail joined the ranks as one of North America’s newest National Scenic Trails.
In July the piney slopes on the North side of the San Fransisco Peaks stay cool long into the mornings. Trail crew members etch out a path 3 feet wide exposing a ribbon of mineral soil that flows through the largest Ponderosa Pine forest in the world.
The work is tediously slow and requires hundreds of thousands of physical labor hours to complete a trail of this length. In order to minimize impact on the environment this section of trail is constructed entirely with hand tools. The volunteers who bend over shovels, pick-maddocks and polaskis is reminiscent of old photos depicting the establishment of many national parks in the 1930’s.
The volunteer crew there that July week worked this section of trail for 10 hours a day for 8 days at a time followed by 6 days off. For them it is an opportunity to escape for a season and live in a world nearly forgotten and mostly untouched by modern distractions. The volunteers are compensated with meals, housing, and hearty satisfaction that only comes at the end of a long and enjoyable work day.
They make camp in the mountains a few miles from the work site where their tents encircle a small camp fire and cooking area. Meal times are shared together for an experience all but lost in daily life off the trail. Their commute to the work site is a 3 mile hike through the blowing meadows, elk breath and dew drops of the Arizona high country but, that commute gets about 200 meters longer each day as the trail continues to grow. Here one stays out of prying reach of worldly troubles for at least a short time. In true nature style the end of the work week is celebrated by a hike up Arizona’s tallest peak.
The thousands of people who will hike this trail will most certainly never experience it like the volunteers who built it. The hours of struggle, sweat and pure bliss that that go unrecognized are a piece of everyday life for the stewards of the Arizona Trail.