Friday evening at the base of Squaw Peak, cars jockey for parking places right at the trail head so their owners won't have far to walk to their hikes. A white Toyota idles in the heat, waiting for a Volvo to back up, and as soon as it does, from out of nowhere, a Jeep Wrangler swings around the Toyota and screeches into the vacated space. Behind the wheel is a neomacho yupster in a baseball cap and muscle tee shirt. He's leering smugly beneath his Ray Bans as he gets out of his vehicle, and, oblivious to the disapproving comments of witnesses to the theft, struts across the parking lot and up the trail as if he hears voices in his head telling him: "Climb Squaw Peak, son. Don't let anything get in your way."
Under the shade of the ramada, a young woman in bicycle shorts and a tube top holds court. "We're all lemmings! I've never seen so many rude people," she rants, as her two male companions stare down at their Hi-Tec hiking boots. "You call this hiking? You call this the great outdoors?" Well, not exactly. It's great and it's outdoors, but "hiking" suggests solitude and nature, and there's nothing natural about slogging uphill with 500 of your closest friends. Squaw Peak is the most-hiked trail in the United States, trod by as many as 2,000 sets of feet per day, 10,000 per week, 520,000 per year. On a weekend in spring, it resembles old photographs of Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike Gold Rush, a continuous shuffling line of be-Reeboked soles from top to bottom. Even on 110-degree days, the trail-head parking lot is full and so are the overflow lots up and down the park. There are so many hikers, day after day after day, that the trail has been sliding downhill as much as five feet a year in some places and has been worn so wide that it can be clearly seen from downtown. Despite the current and much-debated repairs, the trail up the mountain may someday be a valley bisecting it.
Who are these people? There are a few confused outdoorsmen and women who still think it's 1957 and they're in virgin desert, odd pairs of street-shod grandparents on vacation and judgmentally impaired individuals who venture off the trail and have to be hauled out with ropes and helicopters by the fire department. The overwhelming majority are health-club escapees: shirtless bachelor accountants, 40-year-old real estate agents hopelessly trying to run off their middle-aged middles and babes in full makeup reenacting Nike print ads by leaning sweatily against sunny rock faces to suck on water bottles. Gotta climb, gotta be seen, and damn the heat.
Up on the summit, they obsess about personal bests--28 minutes, I'm training for the Boston Marathon, you know." They talk about personal goals--I've got a bowling ball in my backpack because I'm preparing for the Grand Canyon." They reveal personal intelligence deficits--I was up here once in a thunderstorm and there was so much electricity in the air that my hair stood straight up." Women on the trail carry on loudly about how they don't understand their boyfriends; their boyfriends mostly ponder whether Squaw Peak is a harder climb than Camelback Mountain. Somehow the two thoughts seem related.
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Actually there's not much difference in difficulty between the trails. Camelback has 56 more feet of vertical drop from summit to trail head, but Squaw Peak's trail is two-tenths of a mile longer. Ultimately it's a question of style.
Camelback is elite, the place the sophisticated entry-level businessman takes his best girl to impress her with his physique and neon attire. Couples march up narrow canyons, stern-faced, with great ritual and little apparent enjoyment--but they look great.
Squaw Peak, on the other hand, is for trolling, for loose jaunts, for the likelihood that even if you start off hiking alone, chances are by the time you're coming back down, you will have made a friend or two, provided you haven't been knocked off the mountain by a runner.
Squaw Peak is Phoenix's answer to Los Angeles' Venice Beach, without the skateboards, fire eaters, rollerbladers and mimes--so far, at least.
@body:Every hiker seems to have a mental snapshot of the trail taken on his or her first hike, whether it was three months or 30 years ago, and has enough proprietary feeling about the mountain to tell everyone else what to do.
The trespasser who leaves the trail to take a shortcut is likely to get an earful from his or her peers. "For a trail that has upwards of 10,000 hikers a week, there are very few infractions," says Jeff Spellman, a park ranger. "You'd expect to find beer bottles and stuff, but even if I see a Kleenex by the side of the trail, by the time I come down, someone will have picked it up." Though the regulars point fingers at people who violate the rules, what's really happening on Squaw Peak is that the very people who hike it most frequently are pounding it into dust as they are loving it to death. Late in 1989, the City of Phoenix hired SWCA, an environmental consulting firm, to ponder needed repairs to an urban trail in a natural setting, and SWCA sent a consultant named Ron Borkan, who brought along Ken Kehoe. They made their report, wrote up a master plan and the city took it from there.
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."
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.
Diefenderfer's stone masonry in the red canyon below the Camelback summit is a masterpiece of subtlety. He combs the washes for stones and hauls them up to piece them into a jigsaw-puzzle rock staircase. The cement is hidden beneath and rubbed with red dirt to resemble the surrounding rock. Only near the top of the canyon one notices the natural state--undercut rocks, loose dirt where Diefenderfer has not yet been. "It's too bad this section isn't as strong as down below," calls a middle-aged hiker when he notices Diefenderfer's scrutiny.
The quality of the work is lost on the day-to-day hikers. Sometimes when Dief straps on a tank and hikes up Camelback to water the cactus and creosote he planted there, passersby on the trail assume he's spraying for bugs. They thank him that somebody's finally taking care of the insect problem on Camelback. Next: air conditioning.
Even as he relates the story, a Walkman-topped yuppie crusader brushes by, elbowing him in the stomach without so much as an "Excuse me." The trail is at least ten feet wide, with plenty of room to go around, but the crusader clearly has a territorial route. And before anyone can react, his lady friend pushes through on the same course, her blond ponytail slapping her shoulders with each purposeful stride.
@body:Arlynne Eisner is the queen of Saturday morning at Squaw Peak, and as she leads the way up the trail, she greets every third person coming down by name. She's cheery and personable and it's clear that this is her regular beat. Eisner is tiny, but she's got great legs and great fingernails--the former short and tan, the latter long and red--and you have to admire anyone who can hustle up and down Squaw Peak, build a rock wall while she's up there, and still have enough breath left to light a cigarette.
A half-mile up, the route traverses the backside of the mountain. The loose talus that runs downhill and piles against trees below is evidence that the trail has been sliding four or five feet a year, sloughing off like so much dead skin. Just downslope stands a tall saguaro, brown on its trail side and pockmarked from rock throwers.
This is the site that started Arlynne's television career as a Squaw Peak activist. And in fact, because of her efforts, within two weeks the offending "road" will be shaped into terraced checks built to Borkan's specifications. Arlynne and Roger Maki and friends will have chipped in by planting a couple hundred cholla balls to discourage off-trail rambles. Jim Burke of the Parks Department has promised as well to rip out the concrete on the trail below and to insist on more use of natural materials on the trail above. No matter; it will be trampled into dust in time.
Just below "the Tree," Arlynne stops to show off the rock walls she and her friends built to guide hikers away from switchbacks. An Arlynne acquaintance runs down the trail, eyes rolling back in his head because it's his second or third round trip this morning, and, without breaking stride, he stage whispers, "There's a whole lot of rangers up top."
Eisner hurries uphill. Just below the final rock chute to the summit, perhaps the only section of the trail that begs for hand-over-hand climbing, there's a dirt-and-rock wash, another of Arlynne's favorite sections of trail. Borkan and Kehoe are there, making their recommendations to deputy parks director Jim Burke, the rangers and trail crew as people scratch and claw their way up and slide down around them.
"This is a scar you can see from town," Burke says, and the problem is not so much how to keep it challenging for fitness buffs as how to keep it from washing away completely. Kehoe and Borkan admit they don't know what to do with it. Hikers parade past, providing comic relief. A college-boy stoner lopes up the trail sporting an earring and a pirate-style bandanna over his curls; he's carrying a guitar. The rangers beg him for a song, but he demurs with an embarrassed scowl, and sullenly struts uphill with a bounce in his walk that could have come from an R. Crumb comic book.
Three young, blond males climbing down practically step on Burke. They're shouting to each other, though they're within whispering earshot. A bystander suggests that if they turned down their Walkman cassette players they could talk in a normal tone of voice, but, of course, they can't hear the advice. Ken Kehoe buries his face in his hands to hide his laughter.
A swarthy middle-aged man with a thick gut and a thousand-yard stare climbs virtually over Burke's head. "Everybody's got his own steps," Burke says philosophically. Moments later the incredible bulk lunges back down the same route on the edge of control, jumping flatfooted from rock to rock. He's a human landslide; stones and dirt squirt from beneath the Richter-scale impact of his basketball sneakers. He'll pay for his sins with his knees--one hopes before summer is over. Maybe Ben Avery is right; maybe we should pave the trail to save the mountain from these people. Maybe we should just let it fall apart before it gets any weirder. Maybe we should just surrender, sit on a rock and enjoy the parade.
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