The only riding lesson I've ever had in my life was a one-day course on Wimbledon Common in London, about thirty years ago. I had more chance of becoming a Womble than of becoming the Range Rider, the Cisco Kid or the Lone Ranger, all of which I watched avidly on TV as a kid. So what was I doing signing myself up for horse-riding lessons and a ride in the Arizona desert at a dude ranch just outside Tucson? It had seemed a great idea at the time, as these things do, but the closer I got to actually getting on a horse, the more nervous I became.
The Author and his Wife Saddle Up
I needn't have worried. The Tanque Verde Ranch has the biggest herd of riding horses in Arizona, so they were bound to have one docile enough for me. There were children here small enough to fit into the average cowboy's boot, so if they could manage it, so could I. We put our names down for the lessons and ride the next morning, and went off to enjoy a prickly pear margarita in the bar before dinner.
I'd no idea what to expect from a dude ranch, but I thought it would probably involve some discomfort, some getting back to basics, and the dining experience would no doubt be like that scene from Blazing Saddles. You know the one I mean. Well, the only beans on the menu in the Tanque Verde's gourmet restaurant were the black beans that accompanied my wife's Stuffed Chicken Tinga Poblano.
When we were discussing the dishes with our waitress, Lisa, who obviously had some Mexican blood in her somewhere, she told us: "The chef's molé sauce is - forgive me grandmother - the best I've ever tasted." It was the best I've ever tasted too, and I've eaten it several times when visiting Mexico. It had a smoky and slightly sweet chocolate flavour that had us trying to guess its no-doubt secret ingredients. The chocolate dessert was decadent beyond belief, and the Dayden Stronghold dry rosé from Arizona - yes, they do make some excellent wine in Arizona - was every bit as good as rosés I've drunk in Provence. Other choices on the menu included Jamon Serrano Wrapped Seared Scallops and a Citrus-Roasted Half Chicken. It was a long way indeed from the chuck wagon grub that Charlie Wooster used to dish up on Wagon Train.
A Room with a View
The room we enjoyed was a far cry from the bunk house too. It was almost as big as the house I grew up in, with a bed the size of a badminton court and a view from the patio out over Tucson's Saguaro National Park, with which the Tanque Verde shares a boundary. It was a magnificently rugged landscape, with thousands of the distinctive Saguaros stretching for miles towards the distant Rincon Mountains.
The next morning it was time to saddle up and sample our first lesson, though the Course Director Nancy had assured us the first one was very basic: "It'll teach you to tell the front from the back and how to apply the hand-brake." The wrangler who showed us was very patient, and in a second lesson we learned how to take the horse up to a trotting speed. And how to apply the hand-brake, of course.
Home on the Range
Before we knew it we were ready to tackle what became the highlight of our two-day visit - well, apart from meeting a Sonora Gopher Snake in the Ranch's Nature Center - and that was the 90-minute walk ride into the desert. We ambled single file along narrow trails (the ranch is surrounded by 60,000 acres of Arizona desert and mountains), past Saguaros as tall as telephone poles, dwarfing even a man on horseback. The sky was deep blue and the sun blazed down, the only sound being the hooves of the horses as they clopped their way over the rocky terrain.
We climbed up high, looking down over the pink buildings of the ranch, with mountains all around. Almost everyone we talked to at the ranch had been there before, several of them more than twenty times. I could see why. It's not about pretending you're a cowboy, but about getting out into this glorious landscape, supposedly barren but in fact filled with life when you stop for a while, and watch. There are coyotes here, and snakes, and deer. There are foxes and rabbits, kangaroo rats and packrats, and the strange boar-like creatures called javelinas. There seem to be more cactus than there are stars in the sky. There are birds too, birds teeming everywhere, from the diamond-like dazzle of the hummingbirds to the scarlet-red cardinals, shrieking gila woodpeckers, and cooing doves.
And there's that incredible peace, too, when you're out on horseback with just the sky above and the desert below. Sitting on a horse in that rough and unforgiving country, you could imagine something of the love the cowboys had for the land. Tucson was over to the west of us somewhere, but out of sight, just like the modern world had been lost from sight too. We were refreshed and uplifted.
14301 East Speedway, Tucson, Arizona 85748
Mike Gerrard is an award-winning British travel writer who spends half of each year in the USA. He is co-editor of the 101 USA Holidays website.