"Watch out for the ocotillo," our guide warns as my horse nimbly sidesteps this spiny desert shrub whose purpose in life seems to be snagging tourists' clothing.
I self-consciously bring my elbows to my sides, tighten my grip on the reins and look around. In every direction grow spiky plants -- prickly pear cacti and bunches of purple cholla. As the morning sun crests the Rincon Mountains and hits these long-armed desert sentinels, the cacti cast long shadows on the red, sandy ground.
Our horses are navigating a rocky path at Tanque Verde Ranch, a guest ranch adjacent to Saguaro National Park just east of Tucson, Ariz. We're "riding up" to breakfast at the Old Homestead, the ruins of a house built by the ranch's previous owners in the 1920s. All that stands between me and a meal of flapjacks and cowboy coffee is the slow pace of the steeds -- though the local flora provides few grazing opportunities for our mounts, my daughter's horse, Judge, still finds a way to eat grass.
"No! Judge, stop that!" Avery yells, pulling mightily on the reins. He's a lot of horse for our seven-year-old, who, dressed in a jean jacket, bandana and jeggings, fancies herself a cowgirl. After the morning ride, our wee wrangler will groom Judge (the ranch draws the line at letting guests muck out the stables). Then, because horses are kind of a big deal at Tanque Verde, she'll saddle up again in the afternoon for a riding lesson in the corral followed by a ride up to Cowboy Lookout.
Our buckaroo, five-year-old Bennett, will have his first horseback-riding lesson, too.
It's exciting and exhausting for our kids and -- I hope, because I'm a mama like the song says -- the experience is slowly killing any desire on their part to ever own a horse or run off to join the rodeo. "I would like the riding-horse part, but I wouldn't like all the work," Avery says sagely at the end of the day.
Our family of four is on an eight-day road trip through Arizona, a state famous for its Wild West scenery of red rocks, flat-topped mesas and "forests" (for lack of a better word) of saguaro cacti. Cruising the range in our modern five-speed steed, a red minivan, we're working our way from Sedona south to Nogales on the border with Mexico, stopping along the way to hike the trails, walk through ghost towns and ride like cowboys.
Since my children's ideas of the Wild West have been primarily shaped by the Woody character from the Toy Story movies, and by an Usborne book called Cowboys, they can be forgiven for thinking the working men of the American West always find rattlesnakes in their boots, drink poisoned well water, sleep on the ground and subsist on a diet of biscuits and beans. I'm hopeful this trip will illuminate the truth about rattlesnakes and -- as we dine on delicious southwestern cuisine and sleep in haciendas, including a rambling estate on the site of Arizona's first cattle ranch -- dispel the other myths they hold dear.
"It always amazes me anyone wanted to settle in Arizona. Everything has a sticker, pricker, stinger or fang," says Matt Zimmerman, our tour guide with A Day in the West jeep tours in Sedona. He's referring to the cacti, scorpions and rattlesnakes that inhabit the state. What Arizona lacks in pleasant plants and kind creatures though, it makes up for in beauty. As our open-air jeep bumps along the Sedona back roads toward Mogollon Rim on the southern edge of the Colorado plateau, we're gobsmacked by the coyote-and-roadrunner-worthy vistas.
More than 60 western movies have been shot here, from Broken Arrow to the Elvis Presley dud Stay Away, Joe, and I can see why: All around us, red sandstone rock formations seem to erupt from the ground (in reality it's the surrounding land that has eroded away), and it's easy to imagine them providing outlooks for Apaches intent on ambushing settlers.
Though Sedona now attracts "vortex" chasers -- new-age tourists seeking the energy supposedly emitted by the town's famous red rocks -- Zimmerman says what originally drew homesteaders were the minerals beneath them: silver, gold and copper.
At nearby Jerome, a copper boom provided a livelihood for 15,000 people in the 1920s; today, this "living" ghost town built on the side of Cleopatra Hill is home to only 500. We wander past a tattoo parlour, head shop, winery and several saloons, as well as a former brothel that's now an adult novelties shop. After eyeing up the goods at the rock and gem store, the kids get vertigo staring down a 1,900-foot (579-metre) mine shaft into the old copper mine.
Ghost towns around the state tell the tale of Arizona's boom-and-bust history. Some, such as Jerome and Bisbee, have reinvented themselves as quirky enclaves and artist colonies. Others, like Tombstone, have been condemned to attracting Wild West fans by re-enacting the bloody gunfight that put it on the map.
Later in the week, we crowd into the Tombstone arena on a blustery January afternoon, eager for the show. But the gunshots frighten Bennett, who starts crying and wants to leave, and after the "shootout," Avery refuses to have her picture taken with the cowboys. I take these reactions as a good sign: There's no life as an outlaw in my son's future, and our daughter probably won't take up with a bank robber. "Those men were gross, Mommy," she says. Whew, dodged that bullet.
What fascinates the kids most, though -- after the horses at Tanque Verde Ranch -- are the very things that made Arizona uninhabitable in the first place: the cacti and critters. Bennett gets excited just about every time we walk past a saguaro cactus -- he's basically keyed up the entire week and it ain't from the beans. We spot a coyote and roadrunner (no, the former isn't chasing the latter) and see javelina (a kind of native wild boar) footprints at the ranch, and Avery's one regret from the trip is that we don't see a rattlesnake in the wild.
"I would like to stay here until May 15 when all the snakes come out," she declares.
We do get to see three rattlesnakes in captivity during a talk at Tanque Verde Ranch, however. Local herpetologist Bryan Starett educates us in a hurry about the venomous reptiles he calls "misunderstood." No one has ever been bitten on the ranch, and the possibility of finding a snake in your boot is remote, at best.
At week's end, not only do we understand that a cowboy's life is hard work, Avery has new respect for their trail-breaking ways after a jumping cholla, a kind of cactus, "attacks" her shoe. Horseback riding is difficult, too -- I fear bowlegged-ness has set in permanently after just two rides.
Still, I dream nostalgically of the open range. I've been more or less trapped in a minivan with my children for eight days, and the idea of sleeping on the ground, solo, after eating beans out of a can is oddly appealing. Let my kids be doctors and lawyers, but sign me up for the rodeo: I want to be a cowgirl.
-- Postmedia News
IF YOU GO
To help plan your trip visit the Arizona Office of Tourism website, www.arizonaguide.com.
Bedding down, modern-cowboy-style
The Briar Patch Inn in Sedona is really a grouping of quaint, private cottages along Oak Creek. Each cabin features southwest furnishings and Native American art, plus a wood-burning fireplace. Our kids loved the tiny bags of 'worry dolls' that came with the room. See www.briarpatchinn.com.
Formerly a working ranch, Tanque Verde Ranch east of Tucson sleeps wannabe cowpokes in roomy hacienda-style rooms with adobe fireplaces. Play tennis, hike, mountain-bike or horseback-ride by day (while the children are whisked off to Kids Day Camp); unwind over prickly pear margaritas in the Dog House Saloon by night. www.tanqueverderanch.com.
Hacienda Corona near Nogales was the former ranch headquarters of Arizona's first cattle ranch. It's also famous as John Wayne's southern Arizona ranch hideaway. The themed rooms are beautifully appointed and the courtyard walls were painted by famous Mexican muralist Salvador Corona in the 1940s and 50s. See www.haciendacorona.com.