By Ray Stern
By New Times
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Now, almost two and a half years later, Borkan and Kehoe are back to respond to a spat between hikers and the work crew rebuilding the trail. Borkan is tall and businesslike, with a bulb of curly hair. Kehoe is mellow and bearded and has a quick and quiet smile; he works for the Forest Service and is on loan to SWCA because he helped it build trails in the Grand Canyon that have come under less scrutiny than this one.
Even before construction began in January 1991, concerned citizens screamed that the Parks Department wanted to turn the Squaw Peak trail into a highway, as on North Mountain. "If you pave the trail, make sure you put a Circle K on top," one wag wrote on the survey questionnaire circulated by SWCA, and when workers poured concrete on the bottom few turns of the path in the early stages of the renovation, it only confirmed the paranoia.
Indeed, at first the work crew went on a cement binge: They poured concrete curbs and water bars. To discourage the switchbackers whose shortcuts have dug deep gullies in the mountainside, they built rock walls worthy of a 1930s Work Projects Administration project and cemented them together, making the lower trail look more like a formal garden than a Wild West hike. Predictably, regular Squaw Peakers begged the Parks Department to leave the trail "natural."
"There's nothing natural about 1,000 people a day," says Ken Kehoe. "A trail, by definition, is unnatural." In earlier days, hikers climbed Squaw Peak to look down on the city lights in the distance. Now--except for the runners, who don't see anything--people climb with deliberate tunnel vision, eyes tightly focused on the ground to block out the urban sprawl in every direction and to imagine a desert wilderness. But real wilderness is full of nasty bugs and larger pitfalls. What they want is a designer wilderness that looks natural, or better than natural, smack-dab in the middle of a metropolitan area of more than two million inhabitants.
The setting sun lights the amber-colored grass on the mountains opposite the trail head. Borkan and Kehoe tighten their boot laces to start the hike up so that they can critique the work to date.
"The work crew likes concrete," Borkan says guardedly as he walks, and even if he confesses that he doesn't care for the technique, he has to admit that the goals of the SWCA renovation plan are being met: to define the trail so that hikers won't clamber every which way, to narrow it in some places, widen it in others, build it up where it slips down the mountain and blast steps where the mountain has slipped down upon it.
Though the workers eventually began building steps and water bars out of natural rock, hikers still saw the trail getting easier, so easy that the work crews could haul supplies up on a four-wheel ATV. When they started jackhammering bedrock out of the trail, the hikers mobilized.
Arlynne Eisner and Roger Maki, a pair of regulars, gathered more than 500 signatures on a petition asking for work to stop until consultants Borkan and Kehoe could inspect what had been done. Then, to make sure the Parks Department would pay attention, Eisner called the TV stations and did standups on the evening news. She invited Jim Burke, deputy director of the Parks, Recreation and Library Department, to hike with her. When Burke saw that the trail crew was plowing a roadway up the mountain, he said, "This is not what I intended," and stopped reconstruction until Borkan and Kehoe got to town.
Halfway up the mountain is a lone palo verde that regular Squaw Peakers refer to as "the Tree." Leading up to the tree is a 20-foot-high rock face that hikers like to scramble up, without realizing it used to be buried beneath eight feet of soil now stripped away by 40 years of foot traffic.
"It may be fun to climb," says Kehoe, "but it's bad for the mountain."
Head-high on the pitch, a tiny saltbush clings tenuously to the hillside, its roots nearly exposed where it's been undercut by hikers' shortcuts. As Borkan and Kehoe plan their strategy, people climb around them, slipping up gullies and over rocks. A woman in her 50s picks her way down gingerly. "Where are the steps?" she demands. "This is scary." She's a member of a distinct minority; some of the respondents to the SWCA survey thought the trail should be made harder to dissuade such physically unattractive sorts who get in the way and impede their personal bests.
In the morning, Kehoe is supposed to make suggestions to the trail crew on how to compromise between hard-core and soft-core hikers, how to make this section of trail look natural and still withstand heavy traffic. "I'm not going to sleep well tonight," he says.
Nothing will return the trail to more pristine days when the parking lot was gravel and a weekday's hike meant you could have a mountaintop to yourself. "The present hikers are in more of a hurry," laments Roger Maki, a longtime Squaw Peaker. "They know nothing about mountain etiquette, where hikers going down yield to hikers climbing up. It's like a fitness center. I've been bumped three times since winter by runners out of control."