A local volunteer trail building and maintenance crew has begun lending a hand to the Arizona Trail’s largest construction project since the Trail’s completion in 2000. They are building, by hand, a 1.3-mile section of the trail that travels through the Borderlands Wildlife Preserve.
The Dirtbags are a loosely structured, but devoted, group of men and women that came together in the mid- to late-’90s to maintain the trails at Patagonia Lake State Park. The group fluctuates in size, with generally ten or so regulars turning out every Thursday morning from fall through spring. While many are from Patagonia, members travel from as far away as Tucson, Rio Rico and Nogales. There are some who are able to swing a pick and move dirt and others who feel more comfortable lopping branches or doing light raking to finish the trail.
Their motto is “We may be slow, but we’re sloppy,” but don’t let that fool you. Their leader, Chris Strohm, of Patagonia, is a Master Trailbuilder, who came to Patagonia in the ’90s with years of experience on the trails around Lake Tahoe. He designs the trails, walking the possible routes several times before selecting the path, “rough-flagging,” then “tight-flagging” it. A clinometer to measure grade helps him design for water runoff, and he works to highlight or avoid certain natural features along the way. The result is a carefully planned, “elegant” trail.
Rio Rico resident Joe Watkins, the unofficial second in command, has been with the group since 2008, when he wandered into the State Natural Area west of Patagonia Lake and ran into a ranger who wanted to see his hiking permit. In the course of the conversation, Watkins convinced him that he was a responsible nature lover who had done lots of volunteer work on trails and in parks. The ranger convinced Joe to consider joining a group of locals who do just that. Over the years, Watkins has taken on the role of organizer when Strohm is either back in Lake Tahoe or traveling. He takes part in trail design as well.
The name “The Dirtbags” has its beginnings in Lake Tahoe, where Strohm described to the group how trail workers sometimes had to haul dirt and rocks in large canvas bags when working in areas inaccessible for wheelbarrows. The Tahoe crew called themselves “The Dirtbags” and, when Joe had the opportunity to give an interview to a reporter from the Nogales International one day and was asked what the group called itself, he decided on the spot – they were “Dirtbags” too.
Last spring, with the onset of COVID, the group took a break. It was hard to give up the work, camaraderie, and the feeling of contributing to the community. In late summer, Watkins began a conversation with the group via email, and members came up with great ways to begin again safely. Now, on Thursday mornings, you can see a line of cars gathering along Naugle Av. at 8 a.m. to caravan to the work site several miles north of Patagonia.
The 800-mile AZ trail is being rerouted to replace many miles currently traveled along roadsides with single track trails. The existing route that follows Harshaw Road through the town of Patagonia and up Temporal Canyon Road will still be an option. However, there will be a new way, which leaves Harshaw Road near Red Rock Ranch Road, travels down Corral Canyon, under Highway 82, across a section of Borderlands property, and back into Coronado National Forest to the existing trail.
A further benefit to this new route is that it stays outside of a wilderness area that it previously crossed. Once the new trail is open, bicyclists, not allowed in wilderness areas, will be able to join hikers and horseback riders in using one more section of the Arizona trail. (Several other sections will still require “bike-arounds” for mountain bikers.)
When eight Dirtbags gathered on a chilly mid-December morning at the head of the day’s section, Strohm discussed COVID and trail safety procedures before handing out tools.
“There’s a way to do everything,” he said, as he covered topics from the right way to carry tools to reviewing the five steps the group follows for building what he calls “a new tread.”
The AZ Trail section is the latest in a string of building projects the group has undertaken over the years, from the Paton – Nature Conservancy Trail to the Smith Canyon Trail in Wildlife Corridors. The Dirtbags also maintain trails annually around the area. The Friends of Sonoita Creek support the group financially, which has helped pay for tools and other needs. Strohm’s wife, and fellow Dirtbag, Mary is currently designing a set of interpretive signs for the Smith Canyon Trail and the new AZ Trail section.
The group’s work on the trail is expected to be completed in the spring, while the entire reroute will take until 2025 to complete. The AZ Trail Foundation will hold several public work sessions this January and beyond, which will be sized to address COVID19 concerns. For more information, visit their website at www.aztrail.org for updates.
New members are welcome. Watkins says, “If you can hike two or three miles, you have what it takes to help out on the crew. There are no meetings, no dues, just a weekly work session – and an exclusive Dirtbag cap given to any member who demonstrates his or her dedication to the work. Call Chris Strohm at (520) 999-0530 or Joe Watkins at (520) 377-7294 to sign up or for more information. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.