By Matthew Hendley
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By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
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The polite runners say "Excuse me" and go around the hikers--but to do so they leave the trail and crumble the fragile trail shoulders. @rule:
@body:The current trail is a battered relic of Phoenix's dude-ranch past, a bridle path maintained by the Arizona Biltmore so that 1930s hotel guests from Chicago could tie their mounts to the hitching post that still stands a few hundred feet below the summit and hike to the top.
Gil Gilbert, now 81, remembers hiking Squaw Peak in 1918 as a Boy Scout behind a leader named Uncle Jimmy. Jimmy would hike up his trouser leg after he hiked up the mountain to show his young charges where he had been struck by an arrow during the Indian wars. "The trail up was pretty much as it is now," Gilbert says. Getting there was not, however. The streetcar line ended at Second Street and Lynwood, and so the troop trekked up Seventh Street--then a two-lane road bordered by ditches and cottonwood trees--turned east at Glendale Avenue and crossed the canal, where the road withered to a wagon track. Gilbert and his family would ride horses up the mountain even at night, because the animals knew the way well enough to walk it in the dark. Once he inspired a horse all the way to the top. "Not much room for him to move around up there," he deadpans.
In the 1950s, the Biltmore turned the mountain and surrounding land over to the county for a park, partly on the suggestion of Ben Avery, the retired outdoors writer for the Arizona Republic. Now, when Avery sees the hiking hordes, he says, "Most of them don't know a trail from a boulevard. If it takes a sidewalk to save the mountain, then they should do it."
@body:Paul Diefenderfer pulls at his beard and kicks at the red dirt with a big toe that pokes out of his sandals. He never wears hiking boots, and that makes for a good conversation starter with people he passes on the trail. Diefenderfer is president of the Arizona Mountaineering Club. For the last several years, he and his fellow club members have been restoring the Camelback summit trail on their own time and money. Their work has inspired considerably less griping than the city's on Squaw Peak.
The hiker traffic on Camelback is less than at Squaw Peak, but still more than 300,000 per year, and the damage is obvious. A quarter-mile from the parking lot, the trail skirts under a high, red cliff, hemmed in by a ten-foot chain-link fence that borders private property. Once the bottom of the fence rode flat on the ground; now a three-foot gap shows how deeply footprints have worn away the soil.
Dusk on the trail above Echo Canyon Park: There's a traffic jam halfway to the summit because a rattlesnake of indeterminate size has lodged itself into a fissure in a cliff side at a particularly narrow point of the trail and sizzles threateningly whenever anyone tries to pass. Women turn around and head downhill, vowing never to return. Except for the Walkmanized persons who run deafly and dumbly past with Led Zeppelin roaring in their earphones, everyone stops to peer around the corner an instant before taking a hop, skip and jump past the snake. "It's just a little rattler," coos a thin man with an Indian accent. He's one of the regular compulsive runners. "In my country we have cobras and pit vipers--he pronouces it "wipers." "When they bite, you are going to lose income--you die. But a rattler: You will not have a record time that day, but you will not die."
Echo Canyon has as much Phoenix tradition as Squaw Peak. Gil Gilbert remembers riding there in his family's horse-drawn buggy in the 1910s for after-church picnics. "Coyotes would howl, and if people were close enough to hear, we'd move," he says. When he was courting his future wife, Dottie (one of the founders of the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council), he took her scrambling up Camelback on her first visit to town.
"There was nothing there but rattlers," she recalls.
"Those were crickets," he corrects.
Paul Dief, as Diefenderfer calls himself for brevity, first bought railroad ties and terraced the lower reaches of the trail that rises out of Echo Canyon Park. After three and a half years, he's rebuilt three-quarters of the way to the summit.
It's subtle work, a pointed rock buried at an uninviting angle to discourage footsteps at the base of native plants, cholla cactus placed strategically in the middle of a switchback. "Cholla is a great people manager," he says.
For all his volunteer work and loving attention, Diefenderfer is at loggerheads with the Parks Department. Though he seems a reasonable man, he apparently suffers from attitude sickness in the presence of Parks officials. He abrasively calls their attention to shortcomings. He lobbies against the damage that commercial stables cause in the preserves. He complained that Parks personnel were driving their ATVs over native plants on their way to water revegetation projects. He had bid on the contract for the Squaw Peak renovation and has personally voiced his distaste for the work that has been done. "That's not a trail, it's a road," he says. And though the mention of his name raises hackles in some circles, "Most of what he says is correct," Ron Borkan admits.