The next time someone tells you one man can't make a real difference, remind them of Dale Shewalter.

Shewalter is the Flagstaff schoolteacher who, in the 1970s, dreamed of a trail stretching the length of Arizona, from Mexico to Utah.

But Shewalter, who died Sunday at 59, didn't just dream -- he made the trail happen.

In 1985, he quit his job at Christensen School for a year to walk the state from south to north, the better to get a feel for where a trail might go.

Then he immediately began traveling around the state giving presentations on his vision of a trail connecting communities, mountains, canyons, deserts, forests, public lands, historic sites, various trail systems, wilderness areas, and other points of interest. He estimated he put 60,000 miles on his car in a single year.

Soon, he had the support of trail users throughout Arizona, along with Arizona State Parks and the Kaibab, Coronado, Coconino, and Tonto National Forests, the Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service.

The next step was to inventory existing trails that could be connected and where new trails would be needed. Shewalter was hired by the Kaibab National Forest to be the first paid coordinator for the Arizona Trail, and all agencies began establishing segments of the trail.

Today, the 817-mile route is just 37 miles away from completion. It is championed by the nonprofit Arizona Trail Association, which organizes volunteers throughout Arizona for everything from fundraising to trail construction. Donors big and small have constantly come to the aid of the trail when progress seems to have stalled, and state and federal land agencies have maintained their commitment to Shewalter and the trail through good financial times and bad.

Ironically, about 10 of the 37 uncompleted miles are right here in the Flagstaff region. The first is a short section from Route 66 up to McMillan Mesa that will be finished when the road to the new Catholic Church is built.

But the other is a much longer, 9-mile segment between Schultz Pass and upper Hart Prairie on the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks. Volunteers will be needed in the coming year to help construct this link -- watch for notices in this newspaper.

Will the Arizona Trail ever rival the Appalachian Trail back east or the Sierra Crest Trail? Probably not, but then those trails don't have what Arizona has to offer, either. Prehistoric and historic sites dot the entire trail, including Kentucky Mining Camp, the cliff dwellings at Tonto and Walnut Canyon National Monuments, the historic Roosevelt Dam, 1900 tourism-era structures and trails of Grand Canyon National Park, the former railroad town of Patagonia, the former logging railroads near Mormon Lake, and the early U. S. Forest Service history of General Springs Cabin.

Notable natural features include southern Arizona's sky islands, the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon, Colossal Cave, Miller Peak, Mount Wrightson, Rincon Mountain, Pusch Ridge, Superstition, Four Peaks, and Mazatzal Wilderness.

Dale Shewalter, the father of the Arizona Trail, is gone. But he has bequeathed one of the most precious legacies any single person has ever left to the people of his beloved adopted state, Arizona.

For more information, visit www.aztrail.org.

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