When Sirena Dufault and Liz Thomas stroll into the Kino Sports North Complex Saturday morning, they'll have walked about 80 miles of the newly completed Loop.
But that's nothing.
In 2014, Dufault hiked the 800-mile Arizona Trail that stretches between Mexico and Utah to raise awareness about the trail, especially in the communities near it.
When she learned about the completion of The Loop — 131 miles of multi-use trail around the Tucson area — she planned to hike the full trail on her own. Her personal plans evolved into a partnership with Pima County to promote the trail's completion, which is how Thomas, an urban hiker from California, got involved.
Thomas estimated that she has done urban hikes in at least 10 cities — but she's never seen anything as extensive or connected as Tucson's Loop. She agreed to come walk The Loop when Dufault contacted her.
"It's very relaxed, and it's really cool to be able to walk as much as we are in a city without having to worry about that extra stuff," Thomas, 32, said. "It's not just 'I'm gonna get hit by a car,' but also 'I'm not breathing car exhaust all day, and it's quiet and I can actually talk to Sirena.'"
Thomas adds that while most cities have urban trails, they're often disconnected, with houses, industrial complexes or golf courses interrupting them.
"That's what's so amazing about this being completed, is it's so nice to go out and spend some time in nature and not have to worry about getting off and connecting," she said.
Thomas and Dufault's hike isn't covering the entirety of the 131-mile trail, but rather all of the riverbanks and greenways, Dufault said.
I met up with the women early Wednesday morning as they passed the Christina-Taylor Green Memorial River Park in northwest Tucson. They took a few minutes to take in the memorial. Exploration (and eating) along The Loop is part of the journey.
I walked about four miles with them. Occasionally, we'd stop to admire Pusch Ridge looming in front of us or the first spring wildflowers dusting the desert with yellow. Dufault pointed out a cactus wren nest and cautioned Thomas to back away from a trailside cholla.
"Don't touch it," she warned. "It's the most evil plant in all of the desert."
That was Day Two of their five-day hike, with each day — except Saturday, March 17 — covering about 20 miles. On Saturday, they'll hike four miles to the celebration at the Kino Sports North Complex, 2817 E. Ajo Way, with anyone who wants to join.
"You don't have to be an athletic person (to get out and try walking)," Dufault, 44, said. "Everybody has to start somewhere. For example, I'm from the Chicago suburbs. I didn't grow up doing any of this stuff. Walking your dog is a great way of just going as far as you're comfortable and building upon that. You don't have to do what we're doing, the whole thing. It's choose-your-own-adventure. ... Even just a short walk connects you to the desert and the town."
Dufault came to Tucson in 1994 to study anthropology at the University of Arizona. In Tucson, she took her first hike. Years later, hiking and the outdoors would become her whole life — despite her battle with the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia.
She helped build parts of the Arizona Trail and volunteers at a wildlife rehabilitation center. Just over a year ago, she started her own consulting company Trails Inspire to connect trails with communities. She does that through writing, photography and public speaking, along with trail design and construction. She's currently working with Tusayan, a town south of the Grand Canyon, to develop trails there.
As we walked along our own community trail, Dufault shared both the victories and difficulties of her story as moms with strollers power walked by and cyclists whizzed past.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
How did you get into hiking and backpacking?
"I went on my very first hike to Tanque Verde Falls, and it just blew my mind. I didn't have any idea that there was water in the desert. I came to Tucson from Chicago without ever visiting, so everything was a complete shock to me. It was like being dropped on an alien planet.
"Then in 1997 I was in an accident. I was hit by a truck while I was walking across the street, at Country Club and Fort Lowell, and I developed fibromyalgia as a result, which is a chronic pain condition. I was really sick for a lot of years. I was bedridden and lost my job at one point. I was miserable. And at one point, I decided I was just going to take walks with my dog, which is why I always mention this as a great way to start hiking or start getting outdoors, because your dog is always up for it ... I had a big German Shepherd, Zeus, and we would go on really short walks.
"And I realized being in nature was so healing for me. I might feel bad, but at least I feel bad in nature, and it has kind of taken my mind off of it. ... So I started taking small hikes with my husband, we were dating at the time. We would go to Catalina State Park ... and I'd be exhausted and sore after but I just loved being in nature. My small hikes, over long periods of time, years, they turned into longer hikes, and at one point my husband was like, 'OK, that's nice. Have a nice time.' ... so then I was taking my dog and we were hiking all over Tucson. ... I would get scared and turn right around. I would get to a point and be like, 'Am I even going the right way? Am I going to run out of daylight?' That happened to me a lot. It took a long time to build up my confidence."
What was your first backpacking trip?
"I went on my first backpacking trip in 2001 to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It killed me. I was so wrecked. ... I thought I had trained but I was still having flares from fibromyalgia ... I was so completely exhausted coming out of the canyon ... and at the end, my husband was like, 'I'm never doing that again.' And I was like, 'When can I go again?'"
Tell us about the Arizona Trail.
"I was hiking up in Oracle, a day hike, and as I came down I saw a sign that said 'The Arizona Trail' ... and I thought, 'How does anyone do this thing? There's no water in Arizona.' And it was actually that question that led me to do some research on long distance hiking ... I ended up doing a section hike of the Arizona Trail, and it took me about 15 months and I did it to raise awareness for fibromyalgia ... and completed it in 2009 on Fibromyalgia Awareness Day. That hike changed my life. It gave me confidence in doing something big that I thought was not possible. If you had told me 10 years before when I was super sick and could barely get out of bed that I was going to do this, I would have told you you were insane. So to go from that to, 'I completed this thing, and it was a burly trail, and I did almost the entire thing solo,' ... really taught me a lot."
But you also hiked the whole thing in one go, right?
"I thru-hiked it in 2014 as a promotion for the trail itself. It's about 800 miles. That one took me 2½ months, and I did a lot of stuff surrounding the hike to promote it. ... I'd hike to a community and have a fundraiser ... I took more than 100 people on the trail with me (for day hikes and backpacking trips) and raised almost $18,000 for the Arizona Trail Association. ... I was the gateway community liaison for the Arizona Trail Association."
How has fibromyalgia affected your outdoor endeavors?
"I actually went for about 10 years without a flare, which was awesome ... between 2006 an 2016 or so. So in that period of time it was mostly just the maintenance of staying active and making sure I'm being good to my body and stretching and things like that. I'm also very into dance ... so movement in general. But then I had a flare in 2016 that lasted for about five or six months ... It was rough, but I also dealt with it really differently than I had in the past because I knew I was capable of more than I thought back then.
"I basically just kept doing what I was doing. I went on a week-long backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. I still kept hiking, but I was gentle to my body. I tried to rest up more, but I also didn't let it just put me back on the couch. I figured if I was going to hurt anyways, I might as well hurt doing something fun that was at least going to keep my mind off of it. ...
"I thought I was getting a flare as I was putting this (The Loop hike) together, but it was actually what I call a mini flare. When I have a massive flare, I feel like someone is stabbing a fiery knife in my back, and I'm exhausted, but it wasn't quite to that point, so I was like, 'I can do this.' It will be harder ... but I'd rather just go through with it than plan my life around (the fibromyalgia) because it could happen at any time. You can't plan your life around it."
What would you say to encourage women to get outdoors and even hike alone?
"One of my absolute greatest joys is being out in nature by myself. There are so many things that fall away when you're out there by yourself. How you're supposed to look and act ... I can do whatever I want ... There's also the mental part of it of just being with yourself and having that time ...
"I think women are told not even to go around the city by themselves ... When I have traveled internationally by myself ... I've been told 'You shouldn't do that by yourself.' But that would have robbed me of some amazing experiences that I have had solo."
How has hiking changed you?
"It allowed me to become confident and then take on other things. Right now, I'm hiking the length of the Grand Canyon in sections. This is something that feeds my soul. ... The confidence has brought me to the person that I am to do that and start my own business. In general, nature gives me so much joy, and it's a wonderful place. It's where we come from."
Name: Sirena Dufault
If you go
You can celebrate the completion of The Loop in four ways on Saturday, March 17.
Walk four miles of The Loop with Dufault and Thomas starting 8:30 a.m. at Augie Acuña Los Niños Park, 5432 S. Bryant Ave. You'll walk to the Kino Sports Complex with the hikers and Jasmine the mini donkey. Transportation will be available at 1 p.m. to get you back to your car. Sign up for the free hike here.
The Kino Sports North Complex, 2817 E. Ajo Way, will have fitness activities, live music and acrobatic performances 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Brandi Fenton Memorial Park, 3482 E. River Road, will have an equestrian demonstration and St. Patrick's Day dog costume contest. Pima Animal Care Center will be there with pets available for adoption.
Steam Pump Ranch, 10901 N. Oracle Road, will have lots of St. Patrick's Day activities going on from 9 to 11 a.m.
Go here for more information about each of these celebrations.