Pedestrian Guide

This 'official' Arizona Trail guide could have used a little common sense--and maybe an Arizona author

In the 1980s, Dale Shewalter started dreaming of a big walk. By 1985, he had sketched out a 750-mile route across Arizona from Mexico's deserts to Utah's canyonlands. It seemed doable. After presenting his vision to something then called the Arizona Hiking and Equestrian Trails Committee, enthusiasm for the trail mushroomed into a wave of public and private support.

Northern Arizona's Kaibab National Forest, to its credit, stepped up to the table and built the first 54-mile stretch of the Arizona Trail across their land, dedicating it in 1988. Today, after nearly 20 years, the trail of Dick Shewalter's dreams is almost complete.

Now that we have a trail, it's inevitable that we start getting trail guides. Tom Lorang Jones and the Arizona Trail Association, along with photographer Jerry Sieve, have a produced a new one they call Arizona Trail: The Official Guide.

The first thing that struck me was: OK, so this is the "official guide." What does that mean? Nothing in the book makes this clear, really. Then you read that Jones wrote Colorado's Continental Divide Trail: The Official Guide. So apparently, we have a set of trail guides that are calling themselves "official" without really qualifying themselves. The Arizona Trail Association is listed as co-author, so I suppose that helps.

Speaking of the author, who is this guy anyway? Turns out he's from Colorado. If this is the "official guide," one would think that an Arizonan might have done it. Maybe someone who has lived and breathed and sweated to help make the trail a reality--someone intimately familiar with it. Someone who's at least lived here long enough to know the state. Ah, well. The weird thing is that an early section called "An Introduction to Arizona History" is written by yet another non-Arizonan, also from Colorado. So you have to wonder about this whole idea of "official."

Something that would be more helpful for people would be an introduction to Arizona's amazing fauna, flora and geology. But the closest we get here is the obligatory business about bears, snakes, scorpions, bees and Gila monsters. Ooh, scary.

The layout of Arizona Trail is fairly straightforward. There's a short trip planner that may or may not be useful for folks new to hiking in Arizona. It includes a segment about acute altitude sickness and high altitude pulmonary edema; Jones claims that it's not uncommon for Phoenix residents to suffer acute mountain sickness when they travel into the state's highest mountains. I suppose it could happen, but I've heard of very few people having anything more serious than a little shortness of breath or a hangover-related headache after imbibing a little too much at one of Flagstaff's fine drinking establishments.

There are five pages alone on "How to Use this Guide," which is not a good sign. If you need a guide to the guidebook, it's time to think about a more intuitive design and layout.

The rest of the book is laid out to cover the 43 different "passages," or segments, of the Arizona Trail. Each segment includes a summary of that passage; an introduction; notes on mountain biking, water, maps and access points; a trail description; and a summary of supplies, services and accommodations in the area of that particular passage. Maps of the trail segment follow, showing parking and the route of the trail overlaid on topographic maps.

Another gripe is the use of latitude and longitude for GPS information. What a pain. Using the Universal Transverse Mercator system is so much easier once you figure out how to use it properly.

The book has nice photos that give you an idea of what you're getting into, although their reproduction quality varies significantly. One even shows noticeable pixels, suggesting it was probably taken with a cheap digital camera, where most of the others look like they were shot with a traditional camera and film.

This leads to the biggest problem with the book: It weighs a ton. This is not something you're going to carry with you on the trail. The specific information about where to go, landmarks to watch out for and mileage are critical to have. But you'll need to write this stuff out in a pocket notebook or something, because this thing is simply too unwieldy to carry around. If you got rid of the photos, the large amount of empty and wasted space and the big color tabs, you could probably cut this book down to maybe a half or a third of its size and weight, making it a little more practical for someone actually wanting to use it as a hiking guide.

Arizona Trail: The Official Guide, while not perfect, is a good start. The trail isn't completely built, meaning there will definitely be a second and hopefully more-thought-out edition sometime in the future.