Duding It Up in Arizona
Blame it on City Slickers or the popularity of the Texas two-step, but Western is IN. In fact, after seeing Billy Crystal in full cowboy regalia, even confirmed city folks like my husband and me conjured up fantasies of riding the range and meeting a calf named Norman. However, as we were the most tender of tenderfoots, a cattle drive was out of the question. Instead, we opted for a dude ranching experience with a warm bed and a home cooked meal at the end of the trail.
Since the urge to go duding came upon us in the winter, we limited our choices to Arizona's desert ranches. With the help of Dave Wiggins of American Wilderness Experience (who represents dude ranches in Arizona, Colorado and Texas) we decided to split our time among three different ranches.
The thought of getting on a horse after a thirty-year layoff terrified me sufficiently to send me scouting for riding instructors. After a few lessons on the home front, I figured I could handle a novice trail ride without embarrassing or killing myself. My husband, on the other hand, announced that he would wave to me from his lounge chair by the pool as I looped down the trail. He did agree to wear cowboy boots, a ten-gallon hat and faded jeans however, as a concession to the Western experience.
Our first stop was White Stallion Ranch near Tucson, where we arrived just in time for the Sunday night barbecue. Loading up our plates with chicken, ribs, beans and stuffed potatoes, we found seats at a long dining room table, headed by the owner, Cynthia True. Gray-haired and gravely-voiced, with a lusty chuckle and a no-nonsense attitude, this western matriarch runs White Stallion cattle and guest ranch with the help of her two sons.
Russell True, who is in charge of the riding program, circled the dinner table signing guests up for the morning rides. He explained that the 9 o'clock ride was slow paced, geared toward us tenderfoots, while the 11 o'clock ride would satisfy the more daring and experienced riders. I signed up for the 9 o'clock, while my husband muttered about the potential dangers of getting on an enormous animal who has a brain the size of a walnut.
The 9 o'clock ride was mild enough even for my old and unaccustomed bones. Well-trained trail horses carried us through flatlands covered with low brush and an occasional saguaro cactus. When I arrived back at the corral unscathed, I could see that my husband's resolve concerning horseback riding was beginning to crumble.
At dinner that night, when asked who would be going on the next day's breakfast ride, my nay-saying husband raised his hand. Somehow the thought of ambling through the wide open spaces on a cow pony is so appealing that it eventually wears down even the most resistant dude.
By the third day we felt confident enough in the saddle to join the mountain ride. Since the ranch is nestled next to Saguaro National Monument, we were treated to panoramic views of towering mesas and stately saguaro cacti. Our ever-patient wranglers gave us tips on mountain riding techniques. We were to lean forward going up hill, backwards going down, and if our horse required a pit stop mid-trail, we could help by standing in the stirrups.
Our stay at White Stallion at an end, we headed for Horseshoe Ranch on Bloody Basin Road, located midway between Phoenix and Sedona. This is a bona fide working ranch that is located about five miles from the highway off a graded dirt road, next to the Aqua Fria River. In fact, to get to the ranch, you must either drive through the river, or, if the water is too high, walk in via a swaying suspension bridge that sits high above the water.
Charlotte Wilcox, part owner and wrangler, describes the operation at Horseshoe Ranch as C.P.R.—cows and public relations. She and her father, Dick, own and operate the 70,000-acre ranch, which caters to 1,700 head of cattle as well as a small number of dudes. As the ranch's no-nonsense former manager once said, "If you don't want your butt in the saddle all day, this probably ain't the place for you." Tenderfoot or top hand, folks come to this ranch to work.
Under no delusions about his ability to thrust around in the saddle all day roping doggies, my husband resolved to join the fence fixing detail. I toyed with the idea of at least a half day on the range.
When we arrived, the riders were coming in for the day. As I chatted with our fellow guests, my desire to ride the range disappeared. While their eyes sparkled as they related tales of chasing stray calves and herding cows, fence mending sounded more and more appealing to me.
Dinner was a family affair. Ranch personnel, friends and guests all sat at a long table in the main house. We helped ourselves to tender pot roast, mashed potatoes, hot rolls and rich brown gravy, fuel food for hard working cowboys and cowgirls.
Breakfast the next morning was served at dawn, after which the riding contingent saddled up. Opting for non-horse related chores, my husband and I hopped into the ranch pickup with Dick. Even without horses we managed to round up six cows that had strayed through an open gate.
Horseshoe Ranch raises beef cattle that live off the sparse desert vegetation, so they must be moved frequently to make sure they get the proper nourishment. This is where the dudes come in. A day in the saddle on the range means rounding up and moving cattle, finding strays, branding and administering to sick animals. By six o'clock even we truck riders were ready for a hot shower and a home cooked meal.
Reluctantly we left the gang at Horseshoe, who had become like family, and headed for our final stop, Rancho de los Caballeros. Located an hour northwest of Phoenix in Wickenburg, this ranch is a full-scale resort that has been welcoming dudes since 1947.
After Horseshoe, I must admit to experiencing a moment or two of culture shock. Here the emphasis is on service. Meals are sumptuous and varied, guests 'dress' for dinner, there is an 18-hole championship golf course, a tennis pro and a complete riding program. Head wrangler Dick Fredrickson dashed around the dining room at dinner signing guests up for the next day's rides. We signed up for the ten o'clock.
The morning was gray and drizzly but, though the others who had signed up opted to stay dry, my husband and I, now old hands at trail riding, were undaunted.
A retired game warden from Wyoming, Dave Thomas, was our personal wrangler. He pointed out various exotic desert plants and explained that it takes 75 years for a saguaro cactus to grow an arm. During the last fifteen minutes of the ride the rain came down in earnest. We weren't sorry to see the barn.
Our trip at an end, we packed the car and headed toward home. As we were being reintroduced to freeways and traffic jams, we mused about our dude ranching experience. The atmosphere at the ranches was so intoxicating that even a reluctant dude like my husband was enticed to saddle up. Something about these places made swaying along the trail under blue skies on a faithful steed hard to resist. But, after all, cowboys are our heritage, and regardless of age, there is a little buckaroo in most of us.
Special thanks to the American Wilderness Experience, Inc., P.O. Box 1486, Boulder, Colorado 80306; (800) 444-DUDE (U.S. & Canada), (303) 444-2622 (Colorado), FAX (303) 444-3999, for sponsoring this article. A.W.E. represents the following Arizona dude ranches: Circle Z, Grapevine Canyon Ranch, Horseshoe Ranch on Bloody Basin Road, Kay El Bar Ranch, Lazy K Bar Ranch, Rancho de los Caballeros, Tanque Verde Ranch, White Stallion Ranch and The Wickenburg Inn. They also represent dude ranches in Colorado and Texas. Visit the Arizona Dude Ranches Web site for more information.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication