Trail to Sonoita: Tribute to Professor Tom Meixner

Feb. 10, 2024
Tom Meixner at Las Cienegas National Conservation Area

University of Arizona hydrologist and Cienega Water Partnership board chairman Tom Meixner posed at Las Cienegas National Conservation area. An effort is underway to develop a new recreational trail between Patagonia and Sonoita in Meixner's honor.

Image: Cienega Water Partnership

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A campaign is underway to build a new recreational trail between Patagonia and Sonoita dedicated to connecting people with the landscape around them, just like the man for whom it would be named.

The Tom Meixner trail would cross about 8 miles of hills and grassland along Arizona state Route 82 and tie into a larger trail network through an area that meant a lot to the University of Arizona hydrologist and professor.

“This would be perfect for Tom. It has great resources, it has water, and it connects the Cienega and the Sonoita watersheds,” said Shela McFarlin, a volunteer and former board member with the nonprofit Cienega Watershed Partnership. “His vision was to connect these watersheds and connect the people on the ground doing this work.”

Meixner was serving as chairman of the partnership and head of the U of A’s Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences Department when he was killed by a gunman at the department’s offices on campus on Oct. 5, 2022.

A group of his friends and colleagues first floated the idea of building a trail in his honor a few months after his death.

The project is being developed by the Cienega Watershed Partnership, Friends of Sonoita Creek and the Mountain Empire Trail Association, a small Patagonia group founded in 2006 to turn an old railroad right-of-way into a path for hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders.

The proposed Meixner trail is an extension of that so-called Train Track Trail, or TTT for short, which follows the route of the New Mexico and Arizona Railroad that ran between Benson and Nogales from 1882 until the tracks were pulled up in 1963.

Friends of Sonoita Creek president Bob Proctor lives in Patagonia and also serves on the boards of the Mountain Empire Trail Association and the Cienega Watershed Partnership, among other local groups. He said it is an honor for him and his fellow trail developers to be working on this tribute to Meixner.

“When I first met him, I told him about the Train Track Trail and his eyes got really big,” Proctor said. “He was really interested in it. It was something that he wanted to work on.”

Meixner’s trail would run northeast to Sonoita from Casa Blanca Canyon, about five miles north of Patagonia, following a path cleared in 2022 for the installation of a fiber optic cable in the Arizona Department of Transportation’s right-of-way for Route 82.

The extension of the TTT would connect the communities of Sonoita and Elgin to an existing web of trails covering about 20 miles around Patagonia and link them to the 800-mile-long Arizona Trail, which crosses the state from north to south.

“It’s a good idea, and I think it would really promote the birding and eco-tourism (economy) for the Sonoita-Patagonia area,” Proctor said. “It’s just about getting the bureaucracy to go along.”

The group is hoping to get Santa Cruz County officials to endorse the project and help convince ADOT to grant them access to the right-of-way.

The trail already has the support of “a lot of volunteers who can’t wait to help us build it,” McFarlin said. “Everybody supports the idea. Now we have to figure out what the real steps are to get it done.”

That effort includes a fundraising push, which officially got underway with the launch of a GoFundMe page in September. Between that and other donations, McFarlin estimates they have collected about $11,000 so far towards a goal of $75,000.

She said the money will be used to cover materials, labor, equipment and any permitting, design and engineering costs involved.

As for actual infrastructure, Proctor said they will have to pay for new gates and small cattle guards to allow for horse and bicycle traffic at about 20 locations along the trail.

They also intend to put up some signs with Meixner’s name on them.

“It would be a great thing for his legacy,” Proctor said.

“He was just a wonderful human being,” added McFarlin, who preceded Meixner as board chair of the Cienega Watershed Partnership and continued to work alongside him until his death.

The trail project has the full support of Meixner’s family members, who toured the site in January 2023 with McFarlin, Proctor and others.

Kathleen Meixner wrote a heartfelt appreciation for the idea, calling it a “perfect tribute” to her late husband, who took her hiking for their second date and later served as troop leader for his two sons as they worked to become Eagle Scouts just like their father.

“It has a section which is adjacent to the creek, and I can imagine Tom stopping to squat down and look at the flowing water as he often did whenever we encountered water on one of our family hikes,” Kathleen Meixner wrote. “I can imagine him delighting in the fact that we would like to develop this trail to connect parts of the Arizona Trail in the area. I anticipate the possibility that Boy Scouts could participate in the trail development effort, which would be so meaningful to Tom.”

Maintaining the trail shouldn’t be a problem, either. Proctor said there are a lot of volunteers from local clubs and conservation groups who have expressed willingness to take care of the new stretch once it’s built.

In fact, a few locals have already taken it upon themselves — unofficially, of course — to use the path cleared for the fiber optic cable for recreation.

“I see bicycles and people walking on that portion already,” Proctor said.