THERE'S more than one way to experience the desert in Arizona.
It can be done quietly with a hike or hot-air balloon at sunrise. You can admire it, as I did, from low in the sky in a Cessna, zooming over canyons. Or you can blast your way through it in a cloud of dust on an Israeli military-grade vehicle called a Tomcar.
The balloon and hike never happened for me; a freak rainstorm hit sunny Scottsdale on my visit. So my foray into the Sonoran Desert was in the Tomcar, a golf cart on steroids. At the wheel of a two-seater, I set off in a small convoy from a point about 45 minutes outside the city. Bandanas for our noses and mouths let us breathe. But at times, driving full throttle to keep up with the lead car, there was zero visibility.
I was happy for the three stops, when we piled out and surveyed the land and each other. We looked like sand warriors, caked in dirt. But we were students of the desert. At each stop, we learned about the Sonoran, the greenest desert in the U.S. and home to the saguaro cactus. It was where I learned the golden rule: Look, but don't touch. Casually kick a low-lying cactus cluster with an open-toed shoe and you'll be sorry. You'll find a spine first in your toe, then in the finger you use to try to extract it.
In the distance were crops of lemon and pecan trees. Up close, there was wildlife: A coyote trotted by; cattle and wild horses scattered as we passed. The horses do just fine on their own, thanks to the Verde River, which runs through the Sonoran. They snack on the algae on the river bed, and they have beautiful, shiny coats from being groomed all day by the brush. These are horses descended from those in the U.S. cavalry, from back when the area was a military outpost.
My other experience with the desert was an easy walk -- with no dust -- at the Desert Botanical Garden, where the bonus this year is famed U.S. glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. Two dozen deeply colourful glass pieces by the artist are mixed in with the cacti and succulents in an exhibition that runs until May 18 (dbg.org). Five years ago, Chihuly's first show caused such a crush of visitors the parking lot had to be expanded.
Scottsdale, a desert city of 220,000, is where people go to enjoy life, to escape the cold. The sun, the desert, canyons, rivers and mountains bring the adventure-seekers. But Scottsdale has a cultured side, too. Back in the '50s, the city's Fifth Avenue was lined with designer houses, and runway shows shut down the street.
It was a vacation spot for Hollywood's stars. Natalie Wood married Robert Wagner here; Zsa Zsa Gabor and Tony Curtis holidayed at the Hotel Valley Ho, a fabulous example of mid-century architecture, restored to its glory days. A hip after-work crowd descends on its ZuZu Lounge for cocktails.
Scottsdale has 600 restaurants, a growing artisanal food scene, architectural history and art. One hundred galleries make up an arts district, populated with open-air statues and fountains. Every Thursday, the galleries stay open late, with twinkling white lights strung up to lead the way for ArtWalk -- going strong since 1975 (scottsdalegalleries.com).
Five minutes from downtown is an artists' compound that has been going strong since the 1930s on the banks of the Arizona Canal. Cattle Track Art Compound is a haven for writers, photographers, painters, poets, musicians, ceramicists and a blacksmith.
A dozen artists live and work -- no loafing allowed -- in adobe homes and studios. The great Frank Lloyd Wright went there to learn how to make concrete colours that he would use for his famous house nearby.
Wright came to Scottsdale to confer on a student project, took one look at the Sonoran Desert, became riveted by its abstract qualities and ended up building one of his greatest masterpieces -- Taliesin West, in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains (franklloydwright.org).
Wright and his apprentices started building it in 1937 using desert rocks and sand in an exercise of balance between site and structure. Taliesin West was Wright's home, studio and laboratory. Today, it is a national historic landmark that houses the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. I toured it and marvelled at the genius behind the angles, the light, the materials.
Scottsdale was also home to Paolo Soleri, who came from Italy to study under Wright. Soleri eventually parted ideological ways with Wright and went on to be known for "archology," a blend of architecture and ecology he hoped would counter urban sprawl. Soleri's earthy residence and studio, called Cosanti, is a testament to his outside-the-box ideas (arcosanti.org/cosanti).
Scottsdale is a city of shopping, nightlife, major-league sports franchises. But it still likes to call itself the "West's Most Western Town," even though its days as a frontier cowboy town with saloons, horses and hitching posts are long gone.
Neighbouring towns have begun to challenge the city for western bragging rights. It's hard to argue when there is only one real cowboy saloon left. That saloon is the Rusty Spur (rustyspursaloon.com), and its swinging doors have been eased open by the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
I got a bigger slice of the Old West by going to Greasewood Flat in North Scottsdale, a 130-year-old bunkhouse where bikers, cowboys, locals and tourists all descend.
In what was once part of a sprawling ranch, the party still takes place outside, with a dance floor lined with fire pits, picnic tables, rustic wagons and a band.
The night I was there, the playlist was more Mumford & Sons than Old West. But a genial white-haired gent in a white jacket and cowboy hat called on the pretty girls to dance. And five empty cans of Coors beer were strung up overhead: "Redneck wind chimes," the sign above them said. But the place is not all that redneck: You can get a great selection of artisanal Arizona beers to wash down the famous massive, messy and tasty green-chili burger and chips.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014