Hiking is for everyone, but not everyone feels welcome to hike

PHOENIX – Sirena Rana Dufault has hiked Mount Lemmon, outside Tucson, more times than she can say. But she still has a sense of wonder, noticing little things, including a dust-colored lizard skittering past.

“Oh my gosh!” she said, scooping up the tiny creature. “Look at him! He’s adorable! … He’s like a dinosaur!”

Dufault, 44, appears at home here, in a pine forest, on a trail.

“I want other people to experience this,” she said. “And I want other people to feel like they’re welcome to experience this.”

But she knows not everyone does, for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s about physical ability. Sometimes it’s about transportation. And sometimes it’s about the color of your skin.

“If you just see people who don’t look like you, it just feels different,” Dufault said.

As the daughter of a father from India and mother from Italy, Dufault gets it. She has hiked the entire 800-mile Arizona Trail – twice – and said the farther you get into the backcountry, the fewer hikers of color you see.

“It’s just that feeling like, like an otherness,” she said.

And that can be intimidating and limiting.

In Phoenix, Adriana Garcia Maximiliano, 26, loves hiking but has never taken a backpacking trip alone.

“Not feeling safe has definitely … kept me from enjoying that,” she said. “And you know, maybe one day I will, and but I don’t feel that right now.”

And just to be clear, Garcia, who was born in Mexico, was talking about safety from other people.

Jaye McAuliffe is white but feels that way, too. As a transgender woman, McAuliffe feels vulnerable in the wilderness in a way she never did before she came out.

“It might be way more likely that I get lost or get attacked by a bear, but the fear of other people, definitely weighs stronger in my mind,” she said.

That fear isn’t something that Anel Arriola, 35, feels – although her mother sure used to – whenever Arriola goes on a hike. Her issue is the lack of awareness among Hispanics of hiking opportunities across the state.

Even now, she said, in a time when there’s so much information about trails online and on apps, the Hispanic community – and especially the Spanish-speaking community – is largely left out of the conversation.

When she moved here from Mexico City, she was young and bilingual, but still, she said, “it took me to meet someone who was hiking for me to actually get out and hike.”

For some, the problem isn’t fear of the outdoors, it’s not knowing what opportunities are available to them. Anel Arriola, who was born in Mexico, said it took her several years after moving to the U.S. to start hiking. (Photo courtesy of Anel Arriola)

That someone was Arriola’s sister. But not everyone has that person in his or her life, someone to help open the invisible door that keeps people locked out of the wilderness.

That’s where Dufault hopes to help.

Back on Mount Lemmon, she spots a young Indian woman walking toward her with a baby on her back.

“Hi! Do you mind if I take your photo?” Dufault asked, and she and the woman struck up a conversation.

Dufault is writing a book “Day Hikes on the Arizona National Scenic Trail,” set to be released in 2020 by Wilderness Press. The book will break down the 800-mile trek into dozens of shorter, digestible hikes for different ability levels. But perhaps just as important, it will include photos of all types of people on the trail.

Dufault will soon be submitting to her publisher pictures of black hikers, brown hikers, LGBTQ hikers.

“If you look through magazines and anything about hiking, and it’s just all a bunch of people that don’t look like you. It’s not as inviting,” she said, “and doesn’t make you feel like you have a place.”

And she thinks everyone has a place here – even her, a former Chicago resident who only got into hiking in college, after she was hit by a car while walking and developed fibromyalgia.

Before she started hiking, she was on the road to giving up.

“This gave me my life back,” she said.

Then her eyes lit up and darted away, toward an explosion of blue flowers on the side of the trail. She looked delighted, as if it was the first time she’d ever seen them.

Rolling easy: Barriers to hiking are falling for some with disabilities

PHOENIX – At 22, Carly Verbeke has been to Europe twice. But until just now, she had never been on a hike. Now, for the first time, her wheelchair is rolling past tall pines on a flat, paved trail, the smell of damp earth heavy in the air.

Her chair isn’t even rated to go outside, Verbeke said.

“Apparently, people with disabilities just stay in their house all the time,” she said, laughing. “That’s what we do!”

Verbeke, who was born with cerebral palsy, is among a dispersed pack of wheelchairs rolling along the Mogollon Rim north of Payson. Friends, family and aides are walking alongside, and so are a few people with intellectual and other disabilities.

It took them about three hours on a shuttle to get here, but Verbeke senses how important this is.

“If we’re not able to able to get out here and see it and just reset from the everyday life, then we’re going to go crazy at some point,” she said.

There are programs that get people with disabilities into nature in just about every state.

Loren Worthington, who works with Ability360, gets on his hand bike as often as he can. (Photo by Stina Sieg/KJZZ)

“And people just don’t know about it,” said Loren Worthington, talking from a paved, gently hilly trail at Papago Park in Phoenix.

He’s with the disability advocacy group Ability360, which co-sponsored the Mogollon Rim hike with a group called Daring Adventures and other partners. These trips are cheap for participants — only $15, including transportation and access to equipment.

The idea, Worthington said, is to give people a taste of the outdoors.

Once you love it, “you’ll find a way to just start getting out there more often,” he said.

It happened to Worthington, 54. He has been a paraplegic for more than 30 years, after a baseball accident left his legs paralyzed and his hands partially so.

Worthington had loved sports but put all that aside after the accident.

“I didn’t know I was missing it,” he said. “And then the first time I got on this bike, it’s all I wanted to do.”

He’s in a kind of lounging position, propelling himself by hand pedals, a battery and electric motor assisting him up hills. Since buying his hand bike a few years ago, Worthington said, he’s on it every chance he can get, often with his wife and dogs right alongside.

With a disability, it’s easy to stay indoors, he said, but if you get people outside just once, things can start to change.

“There’s, like, this recall in their brain of what they used to do, or of the one time they went with their high school or something like that,” he said, “and they realize that they just spent four hours without their phone, or without the internet, and it was OK.”

Back at the Mogollon Rim, the hiking group rolled and walked their way to an overlook. As Verbeke stared up at the misty sky and down at the dark-green forest hundreds of feet below, she didn’t stop smiling.

“I would like to do this kind of thing every single day, if I could,” she said.

For her, this is a beginning. For Ralph Sweeden, it’s more of a return.

Wearing a sweatshirt that says “NAVY” and sporting a handlebar mustache, the 74-year-old said he was always the outdoors type before muscular dystrophy attacked his body.

“I thought my life was over,” he said. “I really did.”

But after a few years of depression, he discovered these hikes – and water skiing and kayaking and fishing – the kinds of things offered by Ability360 and similar groups.

“All these activities, they mean so much to me,” he said, smiling.

Sweeden feels his life has opened up.

It’s only the second time Donna Powers, who has been paralyzed from the neck down for more than 30 years, has been on a hike. She’s with her aide, Kayla Westover. (Photo by Stina Sieg/KJZZ)

Donna Powers, 53, feels that way, too. She also felt a cold breeze that cut through her, but being here, close to nature, is part of being a complete person, she said.

“Refreshing, like renewing,” she said.

Powers has been paralyzed from the neck down for three decades. Her life has been pretty full, but this is only her second time hiking.

“My heart and soul are unlimited right now,” she said.

And that’s all from going less than 2 miles down a trail.

“And smelling, and getting wet, and being cold, and then being warm, and then seeing it is such a beautiful view,” she said.

And it’s right in front of her, not in a book or on a screen. Finally.

For more information about outdoor activities for people with disabilities, visit www.ability360.org.

Going solo: These women find hiking alone to be empowering

PHOENIX – A few years ago, when Caitlin Stewart announced she was going to hike all 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail, people had questions.

“Probably four to 10 people said, ‘Are you going to bring a machete?’” she recalled.

That would be a no. She wasn’t going to take a gun, either. But the real shocker was that Stewart, now 33, was not bringing her fiancé.

“And it was, like, as soon as I said no (to bringing him), the whole idea became ridiculous,” she said, “whereas before that, it sounded adventurous.”

People thought this even though as a wildland firefighter and an archaeologist, Stewart had camped and hiked a lot. Instead of buying into people’s fear, Stewart bought a plane ticket to Georgia. When she arrived at the trail, she had her teddy bear from childhood strapped to her back – and little idea of what was ahead.

Stewart says she’s much happier now than when she left on the Appalachian trip. (Photo courtesy of Caitlin Stewart)

“And started walking,” she said. “And I walked for five months … five and a half months.”

For many women who hike alone, just getting to the trailhead means busting through a layer of resistance that doesn’t exist for men. Megan Asad feels the resistance was programmed into her.

Trekking past weathered saguaros at Usery Mountain Regional Park east of Apache Junction, she remembered what she said a few years back when a friend suggested she hike alone.

“Well, we’re not allowed!” she said, doing an impersonation of her old self. “It’s not safe.”

Asad, 45, thinks that answer was all about fear she’d been fed as a girl, then as a college student who was told never to walk across campus alone at night. But something awoke in her the moment the friend said, “Just go.”

“Basically, she gave me permission,” she said.

Asad has never looked back. She now hikes about once a week, more when she can, and very often on her own.

“I think that it’s let me get more in touch with the strength that I had all along that I didn’t know that I had,” she said.

Abigail Joseph, 50, also has found that strength in recent years.

Even though she was raised by an adventurous woman, Joseph used to think of herself as crazy for wanting to explore the backcountry alone.

“Saw the movie ‘Wild’ and decided, ‘You know, maybe I’m not so crazy.’ Maybe other people do do this,” Joseph said from a trail at Arizona Snowbowl, north of Flagstaff. She’s accompanied by Maggie, her Tibetan terrier puppy, named for Joseph’s late mother.

After watching Reese Witherspoon conquer the Pacific Crest Trail, Joseph decided to conquer one night alone in a tent in Southern California.

Instead of being afraid of the outdoors, she found herself tuning into it, especially when a few deer parked themselves nearby.

Abigail Joseph, with her Tibetan terrier Maggie, was always athletic, but she didn’t feel free to become the backpacker she is today until recently, at age 46. (Photo by Stina Sieg/KJZZ)

“And I just sat on this log and watched the deer for a couple of hours,” she said. “It was amazing.”

And something she wouldn’t have experienced if her girlfriends had been there to chat. In the four years since that first campout, she has done many solo hikes, including 19 days on California’s John Muir Trail.

Joseph said her family now trusts that she can take care of herself out in the wilds.

“But they hope that I got it out of my system as well, so it’s kind of like, ‘Now that you’ve done that, you can move on,’” she said. “But it’s kind of the opposite effect. You just want to go do it more.”

That’s probably why Caitlin Stewart now hopes to traverse the Continental Divide Trail, more than 3,000 often-unmarked miles, connecting Mexico to Canada.

She finished the Appalachian Trail, by the way, and found trail life safer than city life.

“Most people wouldn’t just talk to a stranger and invite them home. But nobody on the trail really had qualms about doing that,” she said. “And I got a lot of free showers from very nice people.”

She also frequently hitch-hiked into nearby towns and ate food that had been sitting out for hours. She once hiked in 18 straight days of rain.

But it also “the best decision I ever made,” she said. “Absolutely.”

The experience showed her what she’s capable of, and that there’s a whole rugged world out there beyond an office.

“I would recommend anybody do it, she said. “Or anything like it.”

Whatever the Appalachian Trail is in your life.