So, here’s an unusual way to prepare for a harsh political campaign: Hike 800 miles in two months through the Arizona wilderness — mostly all alone.

While you’re at it, throw in a torn ligament and bloody, infected blisters.

Hiking the Arizona Trail might not suit most political candidates, but it gave former Army officer and MedEVAC pilot Felicia French plenty of time to think about her campaign to win the District 6 Arizona senate seat.

Mostly, she says her arduous toil from Mexico to Utah on the Arizona Trail reinforced her faith in Arizonans — and the need to protect the vistas through which she hiked for future generations.

“While hiking the Arizona Trail, I was struck by the diversity of landscape and by the generosity of both locals, and fellow hikers from all over the world. When I was in a great deal of pain from a torn knee ligament, strangers gave me their last tablets of ibuprofen or offered me their knee brace. Sometimes ‘trail angels’ left ice cold drinking water, fresh fruit and other snacks at the trailheads, which I was especially grateful for on days when the temperatures soared near 100 degrees and I had to fight infected blisters on my feet.”

She observed, “The generosity of Arizonans that I met while hiking the Arizona Trail, and whom I’ve since witnessed come together to help frontline healthcare workers and vulnerable community members during this pandemic, gives me profound hope for the future of Arizona.”

French is the lone Democrat in the race. She will face either incumbent Sen. Sylvia Allen or her Republican challenger, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Wendy Rogers.

French served for 32 years in the service, rising to the rank of colonel and finishing her service helping Afghanistan build up its medical infrastructure. After retiring, French earned a degree in sustainability from the Arizona State University, eager to apply the lessons she learned to environmental policies suitable to Arizona. She also ran unsuccessfully in 2018 for the District 6 House seat.

All along the rugged and remote Arizona Trail, she saw signs of environmental damage and talked to people about challenges to air and water quality in rural areas. One of the toughest, prestigious trails in the country for through-hikers, the Arizona Trail makes a point of climbing every mountain peak in its path. It goes up the center of the state, with Pine and Payson both serving as gateway communities, where hikers can pause and resupply. The trail also passes through the Grand Canyon.

Her daughter, Anna, hiked through the Grand Canyon with her and also met her with supplies throughout the journey. Anna also now serves as her communications director. Anna said the pair have hiked to Machu Picchu, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail — but said she was still amazed at her mother’s insistence on completing the trail despite an injured knee, infected blisters and the challenges of crossing so many wilderness stretches.

“Each time we met at the designated GPS coordinates, I reminded her that if the trail got too rough, she didn’t have to continue. Each time, she smiled through the pain and said she had to finish what she’d started.”

Throughout the hike, the trail passed by abandoned mines and tailings — along with evidence of new mines and fracking projects. In some cases, the cleanup bill for things like uranium mines on the drainage of the Grand Canyon has totaled 50 percent more than the value of the minerals recovered.

“In the Holbrook Basin alone, there are 80 chemical fracking permits,” said French. “This basin sits above the Coconino Aquifer — a source for Lake Mead — which provides for 40 million people. Last year, 42 U.S. fracking companies filed bankruptcy, dumping $26 billion of debt on taxpayers. As if this tax burden weren’t enough, just one well can deplete and poison 45 million gallons of water.”

A boom in the injection of high-pressure water into fractured, oil-bearing structures deep underground led to a boom in U.S. oil and natural gas production. However, the global collapse of oil prices has threatened many of the fracking operations with bankruptcy — leaving the status of many of the cleanup plans uncertain.

“The natural resources, like the Grand Canyon, are worth vastly more to Arizona’s economy through tourism than any one-time mineral and timber extraction for short-term profit,” said French.

Now on the campaign trail, French says the long trek through rural Arizona has marked her response to the pandemic.

“As a nurse, I’ve seen firsthand how our tribal communities lack access to preventative healthcare and critical infrastructure.”

The Navajo Nation has one of the most dangerous clusters of COVID-19 cases in the country, with a death rate far higher than almost any other area in the Western U.S. “Native American communities are already much more vulnerable than the general population during any pandemic, given the lack of access to water, food and medical services and the greater incidence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease that this historically-disadvantaged community at higher risk of dying. Even though Native Americans make up less than 6 percent of Arizona’s population, our underserved tribal members have accounted for 15 percent of our state’s COVID-19 deaths,” she said.

She said the trek also underscored the vast disparities between rural areas of the state and urban areas. “While schools are closed, education has shifted to online learning. That has put many of Arizona’s rural children who don’t have access to technologies such as a computer and high-speed internet at a profound disadvantage. As of 2018, the AZ Department of Administration reported that almost 900,000 Arizonans — mostly in rural and tribal communities — have limited or no access to high speed internet. This digital divide has blocked our rural communities from educational and economic opportunities as well as life-saving public safety and healthcare services. The current pandemic only makes this inequity worse.”

One thing about hiking 800 miles solo, it gives you lots of time to think.

And you’ve got to think pretty hard — just to take your mind off the blisters.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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