To really know Arizona, you need to let her rough you up some. Not to the point of serious hurt, but enough to feel her in your muscles and lungs and heart and to experience the beauty in the soft inner lining of the landscape's outward ferocity.
Arizona resists armchair contemplation; she is so tactile, so strange, so unlike anyplace else that she demands active participation.
Your ultimate field trip is the Arizona Trail, a 720-mile scribble that bisects the state from Utah to Mexico. It meanders through ponderosa and aspen forests, plunges into the Grand Canyon and lesser-known chasms, lurches over mountains and escarpments, and droops across the arroyo-crinkled Sonoran Desert.
Ten percent of the trail remains to be built, but hikers and mountain bikers can sample the Arizona Trail in more moderate doses. I booted parts of it for 30 days and found six segments that make pretty autumn day-hikes―several require a car shuttle. Arizona Trail Lite, some might scoff. But it never felt like a diluted version of the AZT―it was the real thing, full of spectacular lessons in nature and life.
From mountains to desert
A month on the AZT is a school in the physical and emotional power of water. Aridity is the baseline. "You can never assume there'll be water at an isolated cattle tank or seasonal stream," warns Dave Hicks, a dedicated trail buff. But when it happens the other way, it's a revelation.
I stumbled onto an unadvertised desert spring on a warm October afternoon a half-day's hike south of Roosevelt Lake. A polite gurgle of water slipped from under a huddle of stones, while a skyline of cottonwoods and sycamores towered overhead in botanical fanfare. It was a traveler's shrine.
Much of the AZT forges through wilderness far from civilization's buzz, but the route is mostly easy to follow, and U.S. Forest Service roads cross frequently enough for hikers to arrange pickups. The landscape looks more intimidating than it is, at least when approached with respectful preparation and the time-honored hiker's mantra: One step at a time.
The Superstition Wilderness east of Phoenix is one example. From below, the Superstitions loom as Arizona's most pugnacious mountain range, a sprawling gothic fortress of spiky battlements and buttes. But the Arizona Trail Lite hiker can drive a Forest Service road into the southern foothills, then hoof a relatively benign 6 miles to the ruins of Reavis Ranch in a surprisingly lush riparian valley―the velvet heart of the craggy Superstitions.
And even the day-hiker realizes that perseverance is the most enduring lesson of the Arizona Trail. There's much pleasure in realizing that the same quality that carved the Grand Canyon will also get a hiker from Utah to Mexico in a few weeks, or into and out of the Superstitions in a day: You just keep pressing on, not hurrying, but not giving up either.
Planning for the AZT
Even day-hikes on the Arizona Trail require planning: Check road and trail conditions, weather forecasts, and water availability; obtain maps.
The Arizona Trail Association's website ( www.aztrail.org) offers an overview and news about the trail. Association member Dave Hicks ( www.arizonatrail.net) maintains excellent online descriptions of each of the trail's 43 segments.
The Arizona Public Lands Information Center provides up-to-date topographical maps of all completed segments ($10 each; 602/417-9300).
Road and hiking conditions
Contact the ranger station or park or forest service center nearest your planned hike. The Arizona Trail Association's volunteer segment stewards also know their designated trails very well. For info on stewards, as well as rangers and park and forest centers, visit the ATA's website (see above).
Water is your prime concern―most creeks and springs are seasonal. The standard hiker's ration is 1 gallon per person per day; consult rangers or trail stewards. Hike with a partner. Always let family or friends know exactly where you will be hiking.