Returning to the Desert

A article about the Arizona trail running tradition back through the years.

By on July 29, 2022 | Leave a reply

AJW's TaproomIn August of 1996 after returning from a two-year around-the-world bicycle trip, my wife Shelly and I packed up our rented U-Haul truck, pulled out of my parents’ Massachusetts driveway, and headed west to our new home in Phoenix, Arizona. Four days and 2,600 miles later, in the midst of August’s typically oppressive 115-degree Fahrenheit heat, we pulled into the parking lot of our 1970s-style apartment complex and began our new life together “out west.”

Over the next five years, we bought our first house, had two sons, made lifelong friends with the folks in our neighborhood, and launched our careers in education. On top of all that, I fell in with a group of people who both inspired and intimidated me, the ragtag group of salty, swarthy folks who, at the time, made up the Arizona trail running community. These were the guys and gals who routinely braved the 100-degree summer heat to traverse some of the most pristine desert trails around, and a group that just liked being around one another. Folks like Paul Bonnet, Ed Zerambo, Scott Modzelewski, Jay Loesche, Geri Kilgariff, Dennis Poolheco, Vince Devlin, and Pat McKenzie all took me under their wing. As a U.S. East Coast transplant road marathoner, in a matter of months, I was transformed. I was allowed to become one of them.

Camping in Arizona

A camping trip in the Arizona desert. All photos courtesy of Andy Jones-Wilkins.

In those years there were just a handful of races in the area, but they were all legendary: the Phoenix National Trail 50 Mile in January, the Crown King Scramble 50k in March, Zane Grey 50 Mile in April, Man Against Horse 50 Mile in October, and Across the Years in December. Everyone ran all of them and it was awesome.

Along the way, I befriended a young trail runner named Brian Wieck and we logged hundreds of miles together, dreaming up new races. And, wouldn’t you know it, a couple of years later Brian started, and still to this day directs, the Pemberton Trail 50k at McDowell Mountain Park each February, the precursor to today’s massive Javelina Jundred. Indeed, by the time we moved away in the summer of 2001 to begin the next step of our careers in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, I wondered aloud if, and when, I might one day be able to return to the Valley of the Sun.

Jackass Junction

The location of the Jackass Junction aid station on the Javelina Jundred route.

The years rolled slowly by. After five years in the Bay Area, and the birth of one more son, we moved to the mountains of Idaho for five years before heeding the call to return east, where my family is from, in 2011. I settled back into the East Coast lifestyle, found myself taking on a bit of a role as a “Beast Coast” ambassador, and committing myself fully to the Virginia ultrarunning community, which is one of the best in the country. Yet, I still longed for the desert, the place that started it all.

Earlier this year I took a call from a person who was helping a group who wanted to start a Quaker school in Phoenix. I was told they were looking for an experienced school administrator, with a clear understanding of Quakerism, and a willingness to relocate to Phoenix. Well, it was like something dropped from the sky and after one thing led to another we were set to return. This coming Monday, 26 years after the first time we did it, Shelly and I will once again pack up all our stuff and make the journey west to dive into a new life in the desert.

The Zen Zone, Arizona

A shelter in McDowell Mountain Regional Park, Arizona.

Of course, much has changed in Phoenix and the U.S. Southwest since we last lived there. The population has boomed, things have become a bit more expensive, and the region faces environmental challenges that can be overwhelming. But, in the midst of all that, the trail running community remains strong.

Perhaps it’s a little less salty and swarthy than the community I inherited in the mid-1990s, but nonetheless, the good folks of the Valley of the Sun continue to traverse their beloved desert trails all year long. There is something about the shared suffering of getting through an Arizona summer that binds people together and makes them thankful for the good times. I, for one, can’t wait to get back to my people, the ones who started it all.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Tombstone Brewing Company in Tombstone, Arizona. With a brewery in Phoenix as well as their home in Tombstone, this brewery makes a massive Triple IPA, Hot Tub TIPA. Tipping the scales at 10% ABV, this one is not for the faint of heart, but it goes down surprisingly easy, pairs well with spicy food, and pays homage to the classic West Coast Triples of the good old days.

Call for Comments

  • What’s your favorite Arizona trail?
  • Do you have any stories about the trail running community there?
AJW and his dog Josey, a black dog with curly hair

Andy Jones-Wilkins and his dog, Josey, back in Arizona.

Andy Jones-Wilkins
finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.