The 800-mile-long Arizona Trail that runs end-to-end across the state wasn’t even finished in the early 2000s, when Sirena Rana, still new to hiking, first started seeing signs for it at trailheads. The idea of a string of checkpoints across the entire state piqued her curiosity. She hiked past one of them once and felt an irresistible tug to see what was at the next. But she was years away from seeing the idea of hiking past the trailhead and down the path herself as anything but impossible.
Rana had started hiking after years of dealing with chronic pain, eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia. The pain had derailed her career and left her spending days in bed, and resulted in waves of depression. Hiking didn’t ease the pain, she says, but at least gave her a reason for feeling sore, and it distracted her from what felt like a downward spiral.
Hiking didn’t ease the pain, but at least gave her a reason for feeling sore and it distracted her from what felt like a downward spiral.
She recalls thinking about her first steps as a hiker, “this hurts really bad, but it feels good to be out there, and at least it’s not just sitting there and being in pain from doing nothing.
“When I started hiking, I had zero confidence in myself, and zero confidence in my body. My body had done nothing but hurt for the last couple years. At that point, I didn’t know, was I just going to keep deteriorating and losing ability? I was only 23 at the time,” Rana says. “Those little hikes, they were a huge deal.”
Over time and trail miles, she built up to longer distances, bigger trips, and bolder objectives, often hiking alone out of worry her pace would slow others down. In that space, she found a chance to figure things out for herself and begin reshaping who she was and what she thought she might be capable of. In 2007, after a hike near Oracle, Arizona, passing views of the Rincon Mountains, heaped boulders, and sotol plants with stalks towering sometimes as much as 15 feet overhead, at the trailhead she again saw a sign and a map for the Arizona Trail.
This time, she started seriously thinking about trying it. That thinking turned to doing, and she’s gone on to hike it twice, and now, has written a guidebook to the trail for people who want to try, like she did, to tackle it in small chunks by way of introducing themselves to a life in the wild.
Rana moved to Arizona when she switched majors to anthropology, dropping life as a city girl in Chicago. She’s a former fashion major and model (the photos of her in heels with her hair piled high are a stunning contrast to the hiking skirt and trail runners she wore when we met) for that of a field researcher, having never visited the state but drawn by a photograph of a campus spotted with palm trees against a backdrop of mountains.
Just a few days into her last semester at the University of Arizona, she was hit by a car while crossing the street. After the acute injuries mended, chronic pain lingered that doctors were stumped to ease. She tried everything she could think of — physical therapy, massage, behavioral therapy, chiropractors, acupuncture — and nothing helped. Eventually, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition that can result in whole body pain, fatigue, and weakness. Doctors aren’t sure what causes it, but it seems to result from unusual behavior in the central nervous system, which can be caused by a number of factors.
Inspired by her father making a two-week pilgrimage walk in India, and recalling the happiness found in boundless hours spent in an open field behind her childhood home, one day, pain and all, she picked up her dog’s leash and walked around the block. Then, it was two blocks. Slowly, she moved her way onto trails around her home in Tucson. Sometimes, her big German shepherd mix, Zeus, pulled her up the hills.
When she started to think seriously about the Arizona Trail, little information was available online, so she wrote to the trail association, which mailed her packets of information. Trail stewards and other members of the trail-building crew she volunteered with helped answer basic questions, like how to backpack through a region with few water sources. In 800 miles, the Arizona Trail traveled through the Superstitions, the Grand Canyon, the San Francisco Peaks, the Mogollon Rim, the Huachucas — all the places Rana wanted to see.
So in February 2008, she started section-hiking the trail. Her field research training in navigating cross-country prepared her to follow a sometimes barely-there trail, lost among cow paths or overgrown with cactus. She used the hike to raise awareness of fibromyalgia, the chronic pain condition she’d been diagnosed with just as doctors were beginning to recognize it as a real condition. On May 12, 2009, Fibromyalgia Awareness Day, she finished the hike at that same trailhead near Oracle that had sparked the idea.
“The Sirena that started the trail is totally different than the Sirena that finished the trail,” she says. “It gave me the confidence to do things that earlier had seemed impossible. If I could do the thing that seemed impossible, what else would I do?”
Her big days have stretched to 20 miles with a full backpack, often off-trail and scrambling over boulders, with an ultra-light kit she dialed in mostly to make room for her camera gear. She’s gone on to guide trips on the Colorado River, give presentations at local gear stores, and even finally returned to archaeological field work last summer, when she searched for pottery sherds, stone tools, and other traces of ancient life near Tucson.
She hiked the Arizona Trail again, this time in just two and a half months as a trail ambassador hired by the Arizona Trail Association. On rest days, she visited trail-side towns to explain what a thru-hike is and why those homeless-looking people might just be searching for a hot shower and a full plate of food. Over the course of a dozen fundraisers in gateway communities, she led more than 100 people on backpacking trips and long hikes, fundraising to maintain the trail.
“I just want to let people know that they can do it too,” she says.
She wrote her guidebook, Best Day Hikes on the Arizona National Scenic Trail, for people like she was as a beginner: People who aren’t sure hiking is for them. Trailheads are easily accessible, most hikes are out-and-back, and the book includes a robust section on advice for hiking in the desert and a guide to her best-of spots — campsites, communities to stop in, and places to eat (Oracle Patio Café’s legendary pie is not to be missed). Hikes come labeled with a starter distance for getting acquainted, and then the full distance.
“I used to want to get to this particular place, and I’d get part way and I’d be kind of scared and go, ‘Maybe I’m not going to make it there today. I’m going to turn around,’ so that’s where the short hikes come from,” Rana says. “This has always been my hope — that it would break it down and demystify it to the point that people felt empowered to go out and do things.”
Early in her days as a hiker, she frequented a 5-mile piece of the Arizona Trail with a 500-foot climb along saguaros and views of the Catalina Mountains near Tucson. Some days, reaching the first saddle was all she could manage. Last fall, she wrote that trail into the final chapters of her guidebook. She gives the advice she used back then: go up to the saddle, have a look around and get a sense for things, and just think about the sign marking the mileage to the next time the Arizona Trail crosses a road, and all the places it might lead.
Pick up a signed copy of Rana’s book, Best Day Hikes on the Arizona National Scenic Trail.