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Thru-soaking the West

Listening to Aria Zoner talk about his proudest creation, the Hot Springs Trail, is like being doused — make that soaked — in the marvels and therapeutic benefits of hot springs.

"It was a selfish thing," said Zoner, 42, a dual-certified health counselor and nutrition coach, of his inspiration for creating the trail. "Instead of being a behind-the-desk nutritionist, I studied to master my own health and well-being. Hiking and soaking in hot springs is a big part of that."

The Hot Springs Trail is Zoner's creation, a 2,421-mile trail that connects hot springs areas from far northern Idaho to Santa Barbara, California. Zoner, who has lived in Ashland the past 18 years, hopes to have it designated as a National Scenic Trail.

With the creation of this adventure, a new style of hiking has also been born: "thru-soaking." He defines thru-soaking as "when thru-hikers — people who hike long-distance trails from end-to-end in one go — are able to successfully visit, and hopefully use, each of the 100 hot spring areas that this trail visits."

So far, Zoner is aware of five thru-soakers. After hiking sections, he completed his thru-soak in 2016, covering the 500 miles between Wells, Nevada, and Stanley, Idaho on a bicycle.

Exuding enthusiasm like a passionate motivational speaker, Zoner describes the trail, whether sampled in a day or weekend or over several months, as a path to self-discovery, a way to develop self-consciousness.

"The Hot Springs Trail is therapeutic. It's more about tapping into the self-sovereign person," he says, describing hot springs as "places where people smile, enjoy."

The concept for the trail began in 2009, an outgrowth of several long-distance hikes he took beginning in 2003 after knee surgery. After changing his lifestyle and diet, in 2008 he thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. He later hiked the Hayduke, Colorado, Arizona, John Muir, and Idaho Centennial trails.

"I've walked across every state in the western U.S. since my surgery, some of them twice. One of the things I noticed while planning for these hikes is that none of these trails, or any major long-distance trail, visit very many hot springs. Some don't visit any."

Zoner says he originally created the Hot Springs Trail "as a personal journey." In 2015, "I became compelled to publish a guidebook," "The Hot Springs Trail."

Calling it "the world's longest therapeutic trail," he says its main features are summits, farmers markets and hot springs, both in the wild and at resorts.

"I believe that the combination of lifestyle, nutrition and outdoor recreation that the Hot Springs Trail provides — such as climbing mountains, eating fresh produce and soaking in hot springs — is not only healthy for you but can offer a unique experience for those who are interested in both challenge and reward."

Zoner is also delighted that while living in Ashland he's able to influence and inspire people around the U.S. and in several foreign countries through his books and Internet sites.

"Maybe they never step foot on the trail, and that's fine. They still get excited about finding it and having something to look forward to. These are both health-promoting experiences to have."

But for those who travel the portions of the trail, Zoner believes the rewards are abundant.

"Although traveling in the wilderness can be scary, it can also be empowering. Climbing a mountain. That's challenging but also therapeutic. As far as new horizons and soaking in hot springs, well, these things are just good for the soul."

— Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.