Thursday, January 7, 2010

Q&A with HikeArizona.com founder, Joe Bartels

 My wife, Erin, and I drove into Arizona three years ago. We left Massachusetts and moved to a place we'd never even visited. When we arrived, I took one look at the desert mountains said to her, "I want to go walk around out there."

Fast forward two months to my teaching orientation at Arizona State. I met the dude who ended up being my most consistent hiking partner, and he told me about a few hikes to try. He also told me to check out a website called Hike Arizona.

I checked out the site and it was incredible - it was beyond guidebooks, beyond trails.com, and (get this...) FREE! In addition to maps and hike descriptions, Hike Arizona (or HAZ, as it's abbreviated on the site) offers the benefits of a community of like-minded people who share an interest encompassed in the website's title itself. The description of HAZ on the site is both concise and accurate:
"HikeArizona.COM is the largest maintained collection of Hikes, GPS Routes, Photos & Triplogs. Data for other outdoor activities such as jogging, running, biking, horseback trail riding, backpacking, off-road 4x4 trips, climbing, kayaking, fishing, skiing, diving, & canyoneering are welcome too! Although a majority of the data is for Arizona other US states are welcome. Outside of the U.S. is possible too via generic posting."

Fast forward three years and I've done a lot of "walking around out there." I've spent more hours on trails in the last three years of my life than in the previous twenty-seven and I would guess that I've found 90% of the trails I've hiked on HAZ. Knowing this, I became fascinated by HAZ itself and I found myself interested in the story of the website on which I've spent so many hours.

HikeArizona.com was created by a fellow by the name Joe Bartels who, in the spirit of the HAZ community, provides tons of outdoor insight via forums and descriptions of many, many hikes. Joe was kind enough to answer my questions about the HAZ website and Arizona hiking. The following are my questions and his responses. Of course, I'd like to thank Joe for his time and effort in indulging my interests.

Q&A with HAZ Founder, Joe Bartels

Eric: How did you get the idea to create Hike Arizona? How did HAZ get started?

Joe: In 1986 my father and I moved from Norman, Oklahoma (go Sooners!). Dad was an architect with a PhD in clinical psychology. He loved to design and build houses that made people feel great with Frank Lloyd Wright accents. Arizona Highways was always on the coffee table. My dreams on the other hand were California bound. Dad was an extremely fair guy. We first rolled into Phoenix and stayed for about a week. With highs topping 117 daily he agreed California was looking negotiable! After a couple weeks in Santa Cruz it turned out Scottsdale had better schools.

Back to the desert and I was a junior at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale. I had an English class in what they call a prefab. From my desk I could see the Four Peaks. I had no interest in hiking what so ever. On occasions my sister would practically beg me to go hiking with her and her friends. Personally I thought she was nuts and joked about it too.

That winter the Four Peaks got a nice amount of snow. I recall sitting there looking out the window. The idea that a guy could sit in the desert and look out the window at snow boggled my mind. Hiking out there was the furthest thing from my mind. Seriously... it wasn't that cool.

About ten years later I started realizing the Four Peaks weren't in New Mexico. I began speculating if I could get to these mountains and back in one day. The internet was just surfacing at this point. I tried finding information. After months of periodic checking I came across a French guy that had hiked the Four Peaks. Extremely excited I emailed him. The return was almost shocking. He demanded I stop contacting him.

It just seemed so wrong. I only wrote him once asking basic information. Had he ignored me HAZ may never have materialized. It became my mission to figure these peaks out. I vowed to myself to make it easier for the next guy. November 20th 1996 HAZ was born.

 E: Any interesting statistics or facts about the site? What features are most utilized? Any features users could use more effectively?

J: HAZ got it's first major bump around two year later in 1998 with a mention on the local NBC morning show. This was the beginning of five years of growing pains. The drastic rise in site usage left me searching for ways to meet bandwidth issues and the onslaught of questions. After frustrations with Microsoft expenses and learning curves I became a Linux geek by necessity. What I spent tens of thousands of dollars on Microsoft turned out to be free and almost easy on Linux. Things really picked up in 1999 when I got a handle on databases.

The most popular feature on site is “Triplogs”. It's an easy way to record your time, distance and memories. It's also one of those things most can slip by the boss at work as reading and writing is a quite activity. Every weekday from about 11am to 1pm the site gets a major rise in viewers. Some really dig into posting details on Triplogs while others prefer to hide their memories or exclude them from posting on the home page.

Posting and viewing photos is the second most popular feature. Since day one members have received unlimited storage and access. Some are casual point-n-shoot hikers. A few are leading up-and-coming photographers. We have printed two calendars from member rated photos. In addition several members have been published in local and national calendars to magazines such as Arizona Highways and National Geographic. The most recent request involved a mural in a church and five members.

The main focus of the site is content. I've despised “link” sites from the inception of the internet. Another twist is I never spam or abuse the good will of viewers. Over thirteen years later, I'm confident these simple principles are working for everybody. The site is loaded with quirks and even some good old FLW design in honor of dad. Popular sites like Google and such have dreary profile pages. So I threw in some squatty FLW design characteristics to enthuse the eye.

 E: Unlike many websites with forums, it seems to me that the HAZ forum conversations remain pretty civil. I've seen a few tense threads, but not many. What keeps the HAZ community so friendly?

J: The “HAZ Forum” is really a distant entity from the core site. It only receives a smidgen of views daily comparatively. It reminds me a little of the bar at Cheers. More of a place to hang out. You know... some times you wanna go where everybody knows your name. Like Cheers some just sit back and view it. Over the years several have commented that the forum is remarkably well behaved compared to other internet tangles. The site in general is meant to be family friendly. Respect is not something you ask for in life. Like everything else, you get back what you put into it.

 E: What are the best hikes in Arizona that every AZ outdoors enthusiast has to do?

J: The most popular hike on site is the “Flatiron” by a hefty margin. Some say it's not for everybody. Likewise I've seen plenty of eighty year olds and children conquer it time and time again. Picking a key hike for the masses is not an easy task. Most hike for a destination, exercise or just for the company. Wildflowers cleanse the soul and bring people together with greater power than anything I've witnessed in life.

 E: What is your personal favorite hike and why?

J: My all time favorite hike remains “Upper Woods Canyon”. It's a non technical canyon that reminds me what falling in love is all about. On the other hand, the Phoenix Preserves, which most consider boring, suits me just fine. Granted there are no hundred feet sandstone walls or vibrant green algae pools. Still the important elements are included. Destinations are numerous, exercise doesn't have eyes and anything is good with good company.

 E: Any crazy, scary, unusual, or noteworthy experiences out in the wilderness you'd like to share?

J: It's all on HAZ =)

1 comment:

erin said...

Thanks, Joe, for the helpful info. Good work, Eric!