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Monday, March 5, 2018

THE FRIENDLIEST TOWN ON THE ARIZONA TRAIL

"A MISSION to GERRY’S GOINT": Arizona Trail Passage 15
THE FRIENDLIEST TOWN ON THE ARIZONA TRAIL
Ray Mine near Kearny seen from the Arizona Trail
Uncle Scary hasn’t shaved since 1976. His white whiskers, gravelly voice and commanding presence scare the tar out of toddlers.  But everybody else in his adopted home town of Kearny
loves the vociferous old-timer who is sort of a one-man chamber of commerce for the tiny Pinal County community (population 1,950).  “We are The Friendliest Town along the Arizona National Scenic Trail”, boasts Gerry Kaufhold whose trail name is Uncle Scary. “We want to be the next Moab, only smaller”, he adds. 
Uncle Scary a.k.a Gerry Kaufhold
Kearny is a proud Arizona Trail Gateway Community that provides respite for long-distance hikers in need of a hot shower, a cold drink and a good meal while taking a “zero day” (rest day without hiking) from the 800-mile trek.  Business owners and residents alike have also been known to assist stranded thru-hikers with shuttle rides, lodging, food and showers when traditional resources are unavailable.  
It's all uphill from here. Cubby with Gary Birkett.
Pronounced Keer-nee (rhymes with fear knee) not Car-nee, thank you very much,
the mountain-bound mining town is an affable, who-knew kind of place with slow internet, fax machines and a visiting cardiologist who shows up once a month—usually. 
On the switchbacks of Arizona Trail Passage 15.
A delivery of fresh Honeycrisp apples to the local IGA can cause a stampede. “If you’re in a hurry; you don’t want to live in Kearny,” says Gary Birkett, owner of hiker hangout, Old Town Pizza. The hamlet strikes a pleasant equilibrium between frenzied big city life and the middle-of-nowhere, providing just what weary hikers need in terms of physical comforts but much more than they expect when it comes to emotional support. Hikers who wander through Kearny don’t stay strangers for long. 
Always on the prowl for newsy content for his next “picture-mentories” (promotional digital slideshows) about the town’s eclectic, often spontaneous welcome services, Kaufhold is perpetually working on projects he deems important to the town’s value as a travel destination.  His most recent endeavor was to determine whether the Arizona Trail is visible from town.  Like an itch that wouldn’t quit or a smoldering bar room bet, the conundrum was destined to be resolved and I was privileged to have been invited to participate in the pilgrimage of discovery.
On the flat.
Gorgeous desert plants and mountain vistas define the hike.
Although it was common knowledge that Passage 15 of the state-spanning Arizona Trail was out there somewhere in the mineral-bearing Tortilla Mountains just west of town, Kaufhold was fed up with not being able to accurately point to the site for curious visitors. To remedy the problem, he and Birkett decided that the only way to find out for sure was to climb to a highpoint on the trail and signal to somebody stationed back in town wielding a telephoto lens.  
Discovery of the "sweet spot".
Kaufhold (right) points out Kearny from Gerry's Goint.
“That would help us raise awareness of the trail for the townspeople and school children if they can see it without having to hike it,” Kaufhold said. The duo orchestrated an elaborate action plan. “Gary and I decided to hike up to the crest and hold up a bright orange banner while a photographer in town attempts to capture our achievement,” he added with a dose of determination.
Gary Birkett of Old Time Pizza at the trailhead.
To fulfill the mission, Kaufhold, Birkett, his dog Cubby and I made the 8-mile roundtrip trudge with a load of day-glow signal materials to find the sweet spot.  Turns out, we may have done this just in the nick of time.
The orange banner
A TRAIL IN FLUX
You don’t have to be a hardcore trekker to experience the Arizona Trail in the happiest place between Oracle and Superior.  An out-and-back day hike is a rewarding trek with terrific views of the green riparian corridor of the Gila River and rugged back country. But the area is in for some major changes. “This is one (hike) you’ll want to experience soon as the route will likely need to be adjusted in the coming months,” says Matt Nelson, Arizona Trail Association Executive Director.  “There is a proposal for Asarco (mining company) to purchase a large swath of Arizona State Land to store excess mine tailings from the Ray Mine within the Ripsey Wash area. If approved, the Arizona Trail would be buried under a small mountain of waste rock. We would also lose the Florence-Kelvin Highway Trailhead,” Nelson said. “The good news is Asarco would fund the construction of 6.2 miles of new Arizona Trail nearby, as well as a replacement trailhead. The project would not impact Kearny, at least as far as I can tell. The positive side of the project is that it would extend the working life of the Asarco Ray Mine, which is a positive economic contributor to the area,” Nelson added. “There are many other projects that stand to impact the Arizona Trail even more, and part of my responsibility as Executive Director is staying on top of all of those, coordinating with land management agencies and project proponents to help them understand the significance of the trail and how we should all be working together to protect the resources most important to us all.”  Timelines for the reroute aren’t set but workaround plans are in place. Check the AZT website for updates.
Asarco Ray Mine near Kearny
Birkett's dog Cubby is a hiking pro.
THE HIKE
We began hiking south from the Florence-Kelvin Trailhead shortly after sunrise with various obnoxiously bright materials in tow to use as signal devises.
The first two miles were easy going on a gentle grade among cholla, saguaros and Palo Verde-cluttered arroyos.  At the two-mile point, a gate marked the beginning of a relentless, switchback-enabled climb.  It’s an edge-hugging ascent that slithers uphill unpacking one epic vista after another before hitting a flat above the Copper Basin.  Here, the expansive, terraced trench of the Ray Mine shimmers in the distance while distinctive peaks and mesas like Teapot Mountain (4,485’) fill the horizon---but there was still no view of Kearny. Another mile (and what felt like 500 additional feet of up) later we rounded an elbow bend just before the trail began a downhill twist at the 4-mile point.  “This might be the place,” Kaufhold exclaimed.  Glinting nearly 1,500 feet below was the arched grid layout of the town with church, school, alfalfa field, lake and smelter all clearly visible. But, could the townspeople see us? 
Birkett and Kaufhold toast to a mission accomplished.
Kaufhold pulled out his trusty flip phone and called his “ground crew”.  “We’re ready to deploy the orange banner,” he instructed his spotters Sam and Carol Hosler, Dave and Jo Orzell and Tim Lusk who were standing by on Senator Chastain Boulevard with a gun scope and telephoto lens.  After about 10 minutes of phone banter, Kaufhold gave a mighty fist pump. “They see us!”  
Mission accomplished.
Decked out in bright orange and green, we celebrated like holligans on spring break. “Mission accomplished,” Kaufhold yelled, with arms held high.  As the sweet spot was located on an abrupt joint in the trail, I dubbed the spot “Gerry’s Goint”. At this festive moment, all we needed was some pizza and beer.  But wait; you can order up a party from this site and have it waiting for you back at the trailhead.  Birkett does so with a call to his pizza shop. He says that his town-to-trail pizza delivery service began by happenstance a few years ago in response to a call from two desperate travelers. They were hiking southbound on the Arizona Trail to the Mexico border when they found themselves totally spent and willing to pay anything (ANYTHING) for him to bring pizza and beer to them on the trail.  It happened, the word got out and now it’s de rigueur for Passage 15/16 trekkers to partake of Old Time Pizza.
"Ground Crew" photo of our location on the trail.
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED
With the trail location identified and photo documentation in the bag, Gerry needs a new project.  On the way back to the trailhead, Kaufhold intercepted every hiker we passed to learn about their adventures and inform them of Kearny’s many fine points. The town has it all-- a laundromat, "the best hotel between Superior and Tucson", options for delivering trail supply boxes, hippie tie-dye parties and a population willing to lend a hand. 
"Ground Crew" telephoto shot of us on the trail.
Back at the trailhead, a large pizza in a warming koozy arrived right on time.  Not to be outdone by Birkett’s five-star service, Kaufhold produced a cooler of frosty Stella Artois beer he had stashed in his vehicle.  We gorged and swapped trail stories with passing hikers using a metal water cache box as a table.
When taking a trail break in Kearny, you might find Uncle Scary channeling Forrest Gump’s run on Highway 177 or chatting up the crowds at Old Time Pizza.  Buy him a beer and he’ll direct you to Gerry's Goint while sharing tales of how he got his colorful trail name (it involves a 3-year-old) and his ideas for future picture-mentries.  Although he looks like the kind of guy who could shoulder-hoist a $19.99 thirty-pack, he’s a man of discriminating tastes.  Only Stella will do.

GO DO IT:
LENGTH: 8 miles round trip
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 2,058 - 3,320 feet
GETTING THERE:
From U.S. 60 in Superior, head 15.3 miles south on State Route 177 to the railroad tracks. Turn right (west) onto the Florence-Kelvin Highway, go over a single lane bridge (under construction) and continue 2.7 miles to the Florence-Kelvin Road trailhead at milepost 29. Roads are paved up to the last 2 miles which are on sedan-friendly dirt.
INFO:
Arizona Trail Association
Old Time Pizza
370 Alden Rd Kearny
520-363-5523

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