At first glance, “Rim to River” seems to be yet another memoir of hiking the Arizona Trail. Starting at the Utah/Arizona border, author Tom Zoellner begins his 800-mile journey south to the Mexican border. He describes the hike – enduring the cold, heat, loneliness, and dehydration most trekkers will encounter – but more importantly, the trail serves to provide a framework for his forays into the social, cultural, environmental, and political history of Arizona, subjects he has spent his career observing and writing about.
An Arizona native who grew up in Phoenix and Tucson, Zoellner is the author of nine nonfiction books and worked as a reporter for several newspapers, including the Arizona Republic. He was also a speechwriter and field organizer for Gabrielle Giffords.
Zoellner has never felt at home with the cookie cutter developments that characterize urban areas across the state. “I never felt my surroundings were ‘real,’ in some nameless way,” he writes. “The desert seemed too hostile and blasted, the neighborhoods too synthetic, the sunlight all wrong, the entire package a funhouse mirror of an ideal that lay somewhere else.”
So, he heads out on the trail to the state’s more rural areas, as he tells stories about a myriad of characters; crooked politicians, ambitious water czars, Navajo runners, miners, and senior citizens spending their golden years in Green Valley.
As he walks, Zoellner examines the critical roles of both fire and water in the state. He describes some of the more famous wildfires in the state, the mistakes that ignited them, the politics of firefighting, and the devastation, both in terms of human lives and property lost, as well as the ironically regenerative power of fire.
He ponders how water policy has shaped the growth of Arizona, allowing “civic dreamers to deform three rivers and build the nation’s fifth-biggest city in a totally unsuitable region. Had the lower Colorado River not been muscled over here, Arizona would be much less populated, perhaps saner, and more conscious of its place within an arid ecosystem.”
“Is there such a thing as a distinctive Arizona cuisine?” Zoellner asks in the chapter titled “Enchiladas and Whiskey.” Zoellner’s descriptions of carne asada, sea food, corn, chili, salt, and tortillas are interspersed with a discussion of the need for dark bars serving tequila and beer as a relief, which will resonate with anyone who has sought respite in an air conditioned bar after spending the day outdoors in Arizona.
In his chapter about mining in the Santa Rita Mountains, Zoellner writes, “As so many Arizona stories do, this one begins with a pick and shovel.” After a brief history of Walter Vail and the Empire Ranch north of Sonoita, he describes the rise of copper mining, both in the Santa Ritas and in Bisbee, and the controversies, politics, and legal battles surrounding the development of the Rosemont Mine by a series of owners over the past decades.
Zoellner’s hike brings him to Patagonia, which he describes as “a funky mix of cattle ranchers, U.S. Border Patrol agents, leftist nonprofit employees, retirees, cyclists, artists, and hard drinking writers, in the tradition of former winter resident Jim Harrison, a man of huge appetites.” He eats a meal at the Wagon Wheel, which he describes as a “state institution.” “You don’t come here for the food unless deep-fried is your preferred school of cuisine,” he writes, “but to me it felt like a five-star bistro.”
After a detour to Green Valley which gives rise to an examination of the “sociology of retirement towns,” Zoellner heads out through the Canelo Hills.
As he nears the end of the AZ trail in the Huachuca Mountains, he looks back at all the sky islands he has climbed on this trek. “Step by step, range by range, this is how Arizona is put together: canyons, peaks, deserts, plateaus, all clicked together in a complex pattern that can never be grasped in a single lifetime,” he writes.
“Rim to River” has been crafted similarly. Step by step, social history, personal stories, greedy developers, political maneuvering, environmental disasters, retirees, Native Americans, lonely teenagers, all clicked together seamlessly “in a complex pattern” as Zoellner takes us with him down this trail.
“Rim to River” is available for purchase at uapress.arizona.edu/book/rim-to-river