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There are (trail) angels among us in Flagstaff
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There are (trail) angels among us in Flagstaff

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Off the dusty, wind-swept Arizona Trail, out of the oft-harsh elements over 800 miles that range from desert heat to forested chill and critters from rattlesnakes to rutting elks, Ray Dunton sinks with a sigh into a comfy easy chair in an elegant Kachina Village living room.

He cleans up nicely, Ray does. Khaki pants pressed, unshod feet nestled in a fresh pair of socks, silver hair coiffed and soiled laundry and gear whisked away, Dunton crosses his legs and stares out to the back deck and beyond to a tree-studded hillside with pine needles fluttering down in the late afternoon breeze.

The look on his face — contentment, perhaps, or a sense of peace — comes not just from finishing the final passages of his AZT thru-hike, after forest closures in 2018 forced him to leapfrog over several Flagstaff segments, but from the hospitality, graciousness and, yes, friendship of his “trail angels,” Ann and Brian Blue, who opened their home to Dunton in 2018 and again on this late October weekend.

Would he like some chips and dip? Go ahead, indulge yourself, as Anne and Brian, proffer plate and a smile. Maybe something to drink, too? Important to re-hydrate, you know.

Dunton, traversing the AZT as part of the nonprofit Warrior Expeditions program that encourages military veterans to “walk off the war,” met with host trail angels up and down the route that runs from the Mexican border to the Utah state line. Some just cached water at trailheads or shuttled him into town and back to the trails. Others, like the Blues, opened their homes to him, providing food and company.

“You know,” Dunton said, his gentle voice tinged with emotion, “one of the goals that Warriors Expeditions lists for going on these trips is restoring your faith in strangers. Sometimes, some of us get to the point where we are distrustful. People like Brian and Ann, they really have helped me.”

By the time Dunton left Kachina Village to return to his native Texas, he considered the Blues friends, not merely welcoming strangers. It’s not like that with every AZT thru-hiker the couple hosts but, on balance, they find helping out these long-distance adventurers an act of kinship as well as kindness.

“Like most people,” Brian said, “I think we get more out of it than we put into it. It’s fun to help people, and it’s terribly fun to learn their stories and live vicariously through their trips. It’s a trip we’ll never take. We’ll never do the 800 miles, but we sure can pretend to be along with these people sometimes.”

Relief from the dusty miles

As long as there have been trails, there have been unofficial trail angels, those kind souls who will help a hiker in extremis — or just a little thirsty — to help the journey go a little smoother.

The Arizona Trail Association, the nonprofit that stewards the network of trails that make up the larger whole, made it official several years ago. The organization enlisted people living near the meandering path to post their contact information online, in case someone’s running low on water or need a lift into the nearest town to replenish provisions, or just wants a place to crash with a real bed (or couch) after sleeping rough for days on end.

Flagstaff is replete with such angels. In fact, of the 76 people listed on the trail angel page of the website, 30 are from the Flagstaff area and another 10 from greater Coconino County. They all profess love for the AZT, but individual motivations vary, of course.

For the Blues, it’s all about meeting new people from different walks of life. For Melody and Tim Varner, retired ultra-runners, opening their home is their way of giving back to all those volunteers who aided them on their adventures. For Doug Holderman, it helped him and his wife, Bianca, prepare for their own AZT thru-hikes in 2017 and, for Bianca, '18. 

"Being a trail angel has kind of restored my faith in humanity," Holderman said. "If someone comes up to you on the sidewalk and says, 'Hey, can you help me out?' you might think, 'Is this person trying to swindle me?' But on the trail, it's more pure and satisfying, giving someone a hand because you know someone will help you when you're out there."

And then there's Bernie Loyer, whose home is in the hinterlands on the far northwest side of Humphreys Peak. He enjoys the company of “people traipsing through every once in a while.” Matt Mitchell, an avid mountain biker, likes shuttling folks between segments because, well, they sometimes will do the same for him when he mounts up.

It’s not as if trail angels are at the beck and call of thru-hikers and bikers. There is no mandatory schedule, no volunteer required hours. But if a call comes in from the trail and an angel is available, she or he will bring a gallon of water, or let a hiker crash on the couch while an ankle sprain mends, or just let someone chill for a while on what thru-hikers call “zero days.”

Trail purists, however, frown upon the practice, saying it detracts from the solo challenge. Ben Lawhon, the executive director of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, recently told Outside magazine that “trail magic takes away from the self-sufficiency needed to undertake a six-month journey."

Both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail have, indeed, been overrun with “angels” providing “magic” (cases of beer left in ice-cold streams; makeshift hot-dog stands near trailheads), and you will occasionally find gallons of bottled water tucked behind an iron AZT sign.

But the trail angels around Flagstaff are more about helping those who reach out to them than surprising thru-hikers with a pop-up pancake joint near Schultz Pass, for instance. It’s all about giving back to a trail that’s been good to them.

“If I could come up with a decal,” trail angel Melody Varner said, “it would say, ‘Don’t PCT and AT the AZT.’”

Mi casa es su casa

If there is an ideal trail-angel dwelling, the Shangri-La of oases, it’s got to be the Varners' well-appointed, two-story home in the shadow of Mount Elden. When the couple’s two daughters grew up and left the nest, Melody and Tim set about transforming the upstairs into a four-star accommodation for weary AZT thru-hikers.

Ultra-runners are known to be obsessive, willing to go the extra mile, and this running couple certainly qualifies. They remodeled the house strictly for the comfort of thru-hikers.

The big bedroom upstairs has been bisected, adding a loft space. It now can sleep six. The other bedroom upstairs can sleep three or four, perhaps a bit snugly, but four nonetheless. Melody and Tim lay out travel and outdoors magazines for guests to read. Instead of a mint on the pillow, a la hotel chains, they leave a package of F-Bomb Nut Butter to replenish guests’ protein stores.

The bathroom has been transformed into something of a triage center for hikers to mend their trail wounds, shower off the dirt of the AZT and wash and dry their laundry. Three fluffy cotton robes, engraved with “AZT GUEST” on the breast, hang on the bathroom door.

Open a drawer under the bathroom sink, and you’ll find everything from blister-repair kits to vitamins to packaged foods to homemade vegetarian offerings in Ziplock bags left by thru-hikers passing through and lightening their load. Open another drawer, and there lies an assortment of winter beanies for the taking and spare water filters and battery chargers and stray socks.

There also is a spacious walk-in closet not expressly meant as sleeping quarters, but it can do in a pinch. There are racks of clothes hanging from the ceiling, but they are neither Tim’s nor Melody’s.

“This is what I call ‘city clothes’ for people,” Melody said. “I’ve gone to Savers and bought shirts, pants, jammies and shoes. People appreciate wearing something other than (hiking clothes) on a zero day.”

As if that’s not enough, Melody is in the process of accumulating a stockpile of outdoor equipment that might be the envy of a certain retail giant. She does it by asking outdoor companies for free samples to hand out to thru-hikers. She’s gathered quite a stash.

“I call it Yogi-ing, like Yogi Bear,” she said. “Huffy Bars gives us bars, that’s a local company. F-Bombs are local, only made here. I called this company, Alpine Start, and they sent me boxes of instant coffee. We went to the Overland Expo and got Gold Zero to give us portable chargers battery packs, about 60 of them. Buffs. Got those. I Yogied a company called Sawyer to give us water filters, the two-ounce kind.

“I believe companies who are sponsoring all these hikers are not sponsoring the right person. They should be giving it to me because we get all the thru-hikers.”

They certainly do. When the Varners first opened their doors, they only had a few visitors. Then word of their largesse got around and, as Tim said, “it rose exponentially.” They no longer use Facebook and stick to the Arizona Trail Association trail-angel page.

But these empty-nesters are happy for the company. When Tim and Melody are off camping or on vacation, “we just tell them to come through the doggie door.” They are utterly unconcerned that their house might be trashed.

“What are they going to do, steal something?” Melody asked. “These (hikers) are so concerned about being lightweight. If anything, I’ve helped them get lighter before they head back out.”

To the rescue

Back in the Blues’ living room in Kachina Village, Dunton tells the story of his first meeting with the couple back in May, 2018. He wasn’t supposed to stay there for another few days, but the forest service closed the trails due to fire. He called Brian’s cell phone, hoping he’d pick up. Brian didn’t blink an eye about driving 42 miles south close to Happy Jack to pick up the stranded hiker.

“First thing I did when I got in his car was roll down the window because I didn’t want to subject him to my (aroma),” Dunton said.

“Ah, you didn’t smell, Ray. Well, not too bad,” Brian said.

Sam McManis can be reached at smcmanis@azdailysun.com or (928) 556-2248.

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Feature Writer

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

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