At midday on a recent Thursday, with temperatures in the high 90s, there was nobody on the Squaw Peak summit trail but chuckwallas and the hard-core regular hikers, two species that are barely distinguishable in color and skin texture.
Linda Van Tilborg and a friend were burning their way uphill. Van Tilborg, 43, has the lean and muscled physique of a competitive runner, which she is. But she was waxing philosophic about the trail renovation, noting that we all resist progress, that in the past the trail was at times quite dangerous, that. . . .
Then, as she rounded the last corner and reached the final pitch to the top, she stopped cold and let out an awestruck, "Oh, my!"
There before her was a lovely, stone staircase cascading the final 50 yards from the summit, the kind of formal yet rustic masonry you'd expect to see between a lake and a vintage Adirondack cottage.
"It's a stairway to heaven," Van Tilborg choked out, "and totally unnecessary."
Certainly, it was not what anyone expected. Last year at this time, veteran hikers raised a ruckus when the trail crew started gouging a ramp around the backside of the mountain (Uphill Battle," July 22, 1992). The regulars complained that the Phoenix Parks, Recreation and Library Department was paving a road for the four-wheel ATV the crew uses to haul concrete up the trail. Jim Burke, deputy director of the department, pooh-poohed the doomsayers, but met with the complainants, consulted with the trail designers and reached a compromise. There would be less concrete and less digging.
No one would question that the renovation was necessary. Portions of the trail were sliding five and six feet per year down the face of the mountain. In some places, more than eight feet of topsoil had been worn away by footsteps, exposing the bedrock beneath. Hikers had carved shortcuts straight through the switchbacks of the path, creating new paths that served as rain spouts for the summer storms, carrying more of the mountain down to the valley below. The trail was being beaten to death by more than 520,000 pairs of feet each year. Something had to be done.
Now the trail increasingly resembles the bridle path it once was. It has been defined, the edges hardened, and it's markedly easier, though Burke protests, "It's still a 19 percent grade, and it's still straight up. I don't see how it got any easier."
Still, it's a road. On that Thursday afternoon, the trail crew's ATV was parked three-quarters of the way up the mountain, beneath ramps bordered by lovely stone and concrete walls and leading to a lone paloverde that everyone refers to as "the tree." From the tree to the base of the rocky summit, the trail is subtly sculpted into the hard rock--though an occasional stone is halved and smoothed so that no one has to lift a foot higher than eight inches to take a step. Then comes the staircase and, at the top, the unkindest cut of all.
Once, there was a short rock chute leading to the summit, the only point on the trail where hikers had to put hands to the rock and pull themselves up. The ten-foot-long trough was the last obstacle, and though it was not difficult, it made a hike feel like a true climb.
The master plan had called for a few checks and some backfilling leading up to the chute, where the soil had washed away. But the trail crew has chiseled the chute away entirely, and has cemented steps right into the remaining crack in the rock.
"What we're doing and what we planned to do are consistent," says Burke. "I don't know what else we could have done, given the number of users we're getting."
But New Times recalls differently, and so do other regulars. "He swore up and down he wasn't going to do that," says Arlynne Eisner, the hiker who circulated petitions to stop last year's construction.
"Burke said the massive reworking would stop at the tree, and from there, it would basically be hardening up," echoes Paul Diefenderfer, a veteran trail builder and former president of Arizona Mountaineering Club.
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"I had the same conversation," says Phoenix City Councilmember Craig Tribken, who recently gave up running the trail because of back troubles. "The last time I saw it, [the renovation] was complete to the tree, and I wasn't thrilled with some of it, but it was rough enough and I didn't have an issue with it. But I sure as hell thought that from the tree up, it was to be left in pretty much a natural state."
Burke holds firm: "That chute is the result of erosion," he says, "of people shimmying up there, and we're going to fill that, and that's always been the idea."
"The plan's pretty much open to interpretation," says Ron Borkan, the environmental consultant who wrote the renovation master plan for the city. "There weren't a whole lot of options other than to build a bunch of steps, because it was so eroded, but they were supposed to zigzag," not shoot straight up the face of the mountain. "We wanted to channel people up to the point where you begin to climb," and in the plan, he recommended backfilling the eroded gully at the base of the chute and then building some "checks," or berms, leading up to it to slow further erosion. As for gouging out the chute and cementing steps into it so that there is no climbing, he says, "That's not what we talked about."
Some of the Thursday hikers didn't take issue, however. "I love it," crowed one middle-aged woman wearing white. And a thirtysomething man who identified himself only as "Doug" liked it, too, because it was more stable and easier for him to run up and down. "Before, if you fell, it was like falling on concrete and spikes," he said.
He thought about it a moment. "Well, sure, I wish it was like when I was a kid," he continued. Then he waved an arm toward the sprawl of north Phoenix and Scottsdale on the horizon and said, "I wish that was all still desert, too."
Then he turned on his heel and ran back down toward the parking lot, as heat shimmered off the smooth and sunburned trail.