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Hiking Arizona’s Gabe Zimmerman Trail

A memorial to Zimmerman stands at the entrance to the trailhead. (Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)
A memorial to Zimmerman stands at the entrance to the trailhead. (Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)

DAVIDSON CANYON, Ariz. — The bike rack at the Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead here is a twisted oxidized metal coil molded to look like a rattlesnake. It’s a small bit of whimsy amid a majestic part of the 800-plus-mile Arizona Trail dedicated to the victims of a dark chapter in the Grand Canyon State’s history.  

That would be the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting at the Casas Adobes Safeway in Tucson, where Zimmerman and five others were killed, and 13 others were injured, including Zimmerman’s boss, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her congressional successor, Ron Barber.  

A sculpted tile-work monument of Zimmerman stands at the trailhead’s entrance. This portion of the path was a favorite for Zimmerman, who was an avid outdoorsman. The monument also shows a side of the legislative staffer different than the one dedicated to him thousands of miles away in the Capitol Visitor Center. Public servants, the best of them anyway, live a double life. It’s a necessity that comes from serving not just one’s community, but the broader national interest. The best tend well to the people’s business in the nation’s capital while staying rooted back home.  

Zimmerman’s ability to work effectively in both worlds is highlighted by the memorials to him in D.C. and Arizona.  

Capitol Hill pays tribute to Zimmerman each time someone books HVC-215, the Capitol Visitor Center meeting room dedicated in his memory on April 16, 2013 . It is a space where the people’s business is conducted, a room like countless others in the CVC. But looking over it is the presence of Giffords’ community outreach director, who was killed while performing his duties coordinating and overseeing the ill-fated Congress on Your Corner event nearly four years ago.  

Giffords, second from left, attends an event with Nottingham, left, in honor of Zimmerman. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Giffords, second from left, and Barber, with Zimmerman’s mother Emily Nottingham, attended the 2013 dedication of the CVC meeting room in honor of Zimmerman. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Zimmerman’s community back home pays tribute every time someone hikes, rides a bike or walks a dog along this stretch of the Arizona Trail southeast of Tucson. It is the northernmost marker for the Las Cienegas passage, a 13-mile, easy to moderate hike along the 800-plus mile trail that spans the state from Mexico to Utah.  

The monument at the trailhead, dedicated in January 2012, bears an inscription explaining whom it remembers.  

Gabe (1980-2011) loved Tucson — its desert, its people and its unique spirit. A Tucson native, he hiked and mountain biked throughout the mountains and canyons that you see here. Gabe was a dedicated public servant who died serving the community he loved. He brought people together, encouraged us to respect one another and appreciated the place we call home. Gabe lived a life of exuberance. You should too. Enjoy this special area.

Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call
(Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)

It is a memorial that is personal and expansive, a connection to the Sonoran Desert he called home, and it continues his outreach efforts.  

Just down the trail, another marker provides a map of the outlying vista, along with a dedication to all the victims of the shooting.  

This location reflects connections that enrich our lives. The creek, the road, the railroad, the bridges, the trail and the mountains — they all connect people, nature, history and community.

This marker honors the victims of the shooting. (Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)
This marker honors the victims of the shooting. (Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)

The two memorials in Washington and Tucson make up a unique indoor-outdoor tribute. There is Zimmerman the staffer, in spit-polish form in the button-downed world of the Capitol. And there is Zimmerman the Arizona kid, walking among the cactuses and rattlesnakes, the railroad tracks and Rincon Mountains to the north.  

The CVC plaque for the Gabriel Zimmerman Meeting Room is a bronzed image of a clean-cut young man. It’s the look of any number of fresh-faced staffers around the Capitol. It’s a subdued and universal tribute.  

In Arizona, the tile-work visage of Zimmerman at the trailhead is rough-hewn — a bearded  young man with a backpack, wearing shorts and hiking boots, smiling off into the distance or perhaps razzing a fellow hiker. The entrance leads to the other community tribute, and also to a small alcove, a meditative cut-out that features another tile-work monument of a younger Zimmerman that has an inlaid poem he wrote as a child.  

“Gabe Matthew Zimmerman/Happy Athletic Outgoing,” it begins. Bracketing this is another mural with a quote from Nelson Mandela, “A good head and a good heart are a formidable combination.” Small trinkets dot this area, the markings of grief and respect left by many visitors.  

The trail, which extends along a ridge line heavy with ocotillo and cholla plants, is accessible and jaunty, scenic and hearty enough to work up a sweat without exposing oneself to the desert’s harshest aspects.  

Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call
(Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)

It was designated as a national scenic trail when President Barack Obama signed into law an omnibus public lands bill on March 30, 2009. Giffords sponsored that legislation at the beginning of the 110th Congress in 2007, one of her first official acts after being sworn in for her first term. The effort fell short, but she introduced the measure again at the beginning of the next Congress in 2009. It was incorporated into the larger omnibus bill Obama signed into law a couple of months later.  

It was the culmination of decades of work on the trail that started in the 1970s, when Arizona teacher Dale Shewalter first came up with the idea, then hiked from the Mexico border to Utah in 1985, a path that laid the foundation for the eventual route across national forests and a multitude of federal, state, local and Native American lands, according to the Arizona Trails Association.  

An artistic bike rack along the trail. (Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)
An artistic bike rack at the entrance to the trail. (Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)

Giffords, who was there for the trailhead’s opening in January 2012 and hiked it on the anniversary of the shooting this year, opened up about the trail and her former staffer in a statement provided to CQ Roll Call.  

“My friend Gabe was not only a selfless public servant, but a fierce protector of Southern Arizona’s gorgeous public lands. He ran marathons, and hiked the Grand Canyon and miles and miles of our region’s many trails. His love for the outdoors carried over into his work. He was absolutely essential in helping ensure that the Arizona Trail received the federal designation it so deserved, and I know that it was a proud day for him,” Giffords said in the statement.  

“The naming of the Gabe Zimmerman Davidson Canyon Trailhead in his honor is a fitting testimony to his legacy of service and commitment to improving his community. I’ve visited the trailhead several times recently in honor of Gabe, and think of him often. We all take comfort knowing that the Gabe Zimmerman Davidson Canyon Trailhead will be enjoyed by generations to come, and can stand as a reminder of how our friend Gabe bravely and tirelessly served his community.”  

Two memorials to one man, one in the nation’s capital and one in his home. These two spots pack a lot in, honoring both Zimmerman and the people he worked with and for. The all-business atmosphere goes with the sweaty outdoors. The whimsical stands amid the majestic. Washington, D.C., and Tucson. The tragic with the transcendent. The complicated and tragic and beautiful stuff of public service and being human.  

Related: Dedication Honors Staffers Ultimate Sacrifice Tucson Picks Site for Jan. 8 Shootings Memorial Giffords, History and True Arizona Grit Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

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