Joe Longbotham, a wiry man with a beard, a twinkle in his eye, a jaunty step and a love of the outdoors, channels the spirit of John Muir. He started hiking years ago to keep healthy in retirement, then lost 30 pounds hiking more than 500 miles each year.
He also got deeply involved in the all-out effort to complete the Arizona National Scenic Trail, which traverses the whole state north to south and passes through Pine and Strawberry. The efforts of a host of volunteers like Longbotham will conclude next year with the completing of the last link in that trail.
Until a little while ago, Longbotham continued to work on trails. He has since put up his trail building tools, but he greatly contributed to the success of the AZNST.
In 2007, Longbotham saw an Arizona Trails Association (ATA) trailhead sign. He decided to volunteer. “I’m attracted to volunteer work because I find those people are like who I aspire to be. My life is better when I associate with nice people,” he said.
Traveling light, (he used ultra-light back-packing gear even forgoing a camp stove), Longbotham probably spent a couple of months a year working and hiking on trails.
But his volunteer work building the Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZNST) will ended in 2012. After 25 years, the Arizona trail had all sections finished. Completion of the trail coincided with the state of Arizona’s centennial.
The Arizona National Scenic Trail began as the vision of Dale Shewalter, a Flagstaff teacher. Walking across the state from Nogalas to the Utah border, he discovered that existing trails could interconnect to create a state-long trail through Arizona.
Dale’s vision evolved into a continuous 800-plus mile ecologically and environmentally diverse trail. It links communities, mountains, canyons, deserts, forests, public lands, historic sites, various trail systems, wilderness areas, and other points of interest. Mostly single track, the trail accommodates hikers, runners, equestrians and mountain bikers.
Longbotham said, “It’s a small world when you start working for the AZ Trail.”
Once, when working on the trail, he ran into AZNST Executive Director Dave Hicks and President Emily Nottingham on a section of the AZ Trail in the Superstition Mountains between Superior and Roosevelt Lake. Longbotham simply sat under a tree soaking in the beauty of the place when the two “bigwigs” came by.
To celebrate Arizona’s 100th birthday, the ATA created the Arizona Trail Centennial Adventure. The program called on the public to get a group together, choose a section of trail and register by July 31, 2011 to help the organization get every inch of the trail hiked, biked, ridden and run before 2012 to celebrate the state's centennial.
The organization successfully reached its goal and the Arizona Trail now runs from the southern border to the northern border. Many have trekked its length and stayed in Rim Country communities.
The ATA hosts a program called, “Gateway Communities” where the trail passes close to towns, including Rim Country communities.
“Payson, Pine and Strawberry are considered some of the most special ‘gateway’ communities along the entire recreation trail,” said ATA volunteers.
The AZNST has received national attention as one of the most diverse recreational opportunities in the country. The ATA's goal includes educating “gateway communities” on their unique potential including:
• The Arizona Trail Association features the community and promotes it as a destination along the Arizona National Scenic Trail.
• AZNST users come to the community to use and enjoy the amenities and businesses.
• Communities host a satellite visitor center and base of operations for the AZNST and ATA.
Longbotham’s work on the AZNST has finished. He said he's decided playing on the water is easier on his bones. But he hopes others still volunteer to keep up the AZNST.
“Trail maintenance will only end when erosion stops and plants stop growing," he said, "That doesn’t sound too good for people. So far, no one has built a robot for trail work, but I hope that they are working on one."
To find sections of trails to hike see: www.aztrail.org/passages/passages.php There is no charge to download maps, if you are a member of ATA.