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Monday, January 9, 2017



Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park, Yarnell
Journey Trail
I’m not a fan of writing trail descriptions in the first person. Hiking trails are not about me. The staring characters of Arizona trails are the terrain, waterways, scenery, wildlife and plants. That I happened to hike a particular trail is incidental and not part of its theme or the influence it will have on other trekkers. When approaching a trail, I plan for the worst and hope for the best while in anticipation of foul ups, the mantra “suck it up, buttercup” bounces around in my skull. Normally, I subdue my voice so my personal biases won’t dilute a trail’s character or unwittingly seed expectations.  Why rob hikers of the joy of discovery? But occasionally, there’s a trail that’s so steeped in emotion that all I can muster is a stammering, first person account. The Hotshots and Journey Trails at the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park near Yarnell embody that spirit.
Hotshots Trail
My first impression of this oddly remote and decidedly vertical destination was one of awe and confusion. As State Route 89 approaches the site, the imposing Weaver Mountains rise over the desert in sheer, granite heaps. I wondered how the heck does a trail get up those hills? The answer came at the trailhead which is just a tiny pull out along the highway, its fresh-paint and bright new information kiosk bolstered by neon orange road barriers. Here, a metal staircase hoists hiker up an insurmountable cliff face to connect with the trail. From this point, the hike is a whole lot of up with a few short stretches of flat in between. Epic views of the Date Creek Mountains and dry-wash-riddled valleys appear immediately. These wildlands give us so much. Fresh air, peace and quiet, natural resources and recreational opportunities. Peering out over landscape, the random remains of torched trees remind that the wildlands also take. In June 2013, the Yarnell Hill Fire blazed through this rugged territory taking the lives of 19 fire fighters. These brave men are memorialized with plaques placed roughly every 600 feet along the Hotshots Trail. Additional signage placed near benches at scenic lookouts, gives information about firefighting and the timeline of the Yarnell Hill Fire. The first memorial plaque shows up after a few hundred feet of hiking. It’s mounted on a gigantic, pyramid-shaped granite boulder and sets the stage for an emotional 2.85-mile journey of remembrance. This hit me harder than I thought it would. I didn’t know any of these men or their families, so why was a pain in my gut working its way up to my throat?
Date Creek Mountains
“I’m not gonna cry. I’m not gonna cry. Suck it up.”
As I approached each plaque, I stopped to read the short paragraphs about each man’s life. They were so young and dedicated to their work and families. It occurred to me that the nature of their work also made them elite hikers---kindred spirits for those of us who aspire to trek for miles in horrible conditions packing 50 pounds of gear and still have enough energy and courage to risk life and limb to protect others.
“Heart be still. Ain’t gonna happen. Suck it up.”
Saddle overlooking the town of Yarnell
Just beyond the final plaque, the trail makes a long traverse on a ridge overlooking the fatality site. Four hundred feet below, a Stonehenge-like circle of 19 gabions surrounds the place where the men perished.  At the trail’s high point, an observation deck marks the beginning of the Journey Trail that traces the hotshots final trek. Here, I met a group of people wearing t-shirts and hats emblazoned with various fire department logos. They came from Phoenix, Prescott, Flagstaff, California and Canada in sort of a pilgrimage of brotherhood. There’s a sign at the deck with color photos of the 19 and a summary of the fire’s progression. When viewed from just the right angle, the portraits align with the fatality site below.
Fatality Site
“I’m not gonna cry.”
Decision time. Should I go down the 0.75-mile Journey Trail to visit the final memorials? To further mess me up, right at this juncture, a flock of ravens appeared on the air currents above, their vocalizations morphing from “Caw, Caw” into “Go, Go”. A psychic in Sedona once told me that the raven is my animal totem, so I went.  The sensation was a maniacal elixir of exhilaration and numbness. I didn’t know quite what to feel. Was this a taking sort of voyeurism or a genuine giving of respect? It’s hard to discern when distracted by conflicting moods egged on by astonishing beauty and utter disaster.
The fatality site sits at the mouth of a yawning canyon a heartbreaking half-mile from a ranch. The ugliness of the fire has mostly disintegrated and fresh sprouts are emerging from the bases of resilient shrubs that were here, then gone and here again.
Fatality Site

At the east end of the memorial circle, somebody left a scorched Granite Mountain Hotshots t-shirt. That’s where I lost it.  Heaving sobs for people I don’t know in a place I had never been, I guess this trail was a little bit about me after all. And it's about you, too. We live, we love, we hike, we win, we lose and it all ends up in a big friggin’ circle--kind of like the one that rolled out before me at the base of Yarnell Hill.
The T-Shirt
LENGTH: 7.2 miles roundtrip
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 4,318’ – 5,061’
From Phoenix, take Interstate 17 north to State Route 74 (Carefree Highway). Head 30 miles west toward Wickenburg and turn right (north) on US 60. Continue on US 60 to the traffic circle at the Hassayampa River bridge, veer left and go north on State Route 93 to State Route 89 (White Spar Highway). Follow SR 89 toward Yarnell, go left at the split, head up the winding mountain road and turn left at the sign for the park.  Roads are 100% paved. There are 13 parking spaces and temporary restrooms at the trailhead.

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