Jim Buchta, Mct
TUCSON, Ariz. — Gene Autry I wasn't. Barely an hour into an all-day trail ride, my hiking boots felt like ovens and my baseball cap barely shaded my face.
It was no better for my horse, Cutter. The low Arizona sun lit his red mane like flames. We were climbing, and Cutter struggled to get his footing on the rocky, steep trail. Sweat trickled down his shoulders as a dozen wannabe cowboys plodded along nose-to-tail behind a real cowboy named Joe.
I could taste the desert. I was last in line, caught in sporadic clouds of dry, chalky dust on the trails of the Tanque Verde Ranch. Miles beyond the ranch's squat pink casitas and rusty-metal-roofed barns, I spied the modern sprawl of Tucson, a green oasis fed by the rainwater and snowmelt of the Catalina and Rincon ranges.
I wasn't complaining. Back home in Minneapolis, the first snow of the season had blown in. I'd heard about the ranch during a stay at the Grand View Lodge near Brainerd, Minn. — both are owned by the same Minnesota family — and arrived there a few days earlier with two teenage nephews for a pre-Thanksgiving holiday. I was secretly hoping that my suburban nephews would come to share my lifelong love of horses, or at least that 180 horses and only one TV would hold their interest. The boys have spent plenty of time on motorcycles and snowmobiles, but almost none on horseback.
I made a promise: They wouldn't have to muck out the barns, saddle the horses or throw a single bale of hay.
We got off to a good start. During the 25-mile trip from the airport to the ranch, we discovered that the cowboy who picked us up and my nephew, Joey, shared a love of playing metal on their electric guitars.
Although it was dark when we arrived, the boys were thrilled with Tanque Verde, a 60,000-acre "Gunsmoke" set come to life. The working ranch, nestled in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains, sidles up to Saguaro National Park, named for the giant cactuses that dot the landscape. Guests stay in adobe-style cottages and a few small lodge rooms (perfect for solo visitors) that are scattered among several buildings, including a dining hall, a one-room nature center and a modest spa built of weathered wood and stone with a rusty metal roof. Across a sprawling green lawn, horses stood shoulder to shoulder in a big corral.
On our first morning, I watched with delight as the sun rose over the Rincons from the covered front of our pink two-room casita. I later met with the lead wrangler — a Marlboro Man, if I've ever seen one. Through a well-waxed handlebar mustache, he told me there are several rides daily for people of all abilities, and we could do as many as we liked. Then, he warned that we would need to pass a riding test if we wanted to do a lope ride — like the Daytona 500 of trail rides, with a fast gait and a bit of danger.
"And ours is the most difficult in the industry," he said.
I was happy for the high safety standards, but knew that it would be difficult for us to pass, so we took a group riding lesson with two wranglers and a dozen or so riders from Poland who were visiting the ranch as part of a Philip Morris employee incentive trip. I called them the Smokin' Poles.
We started with the basics: steering the horses and getting them to start and stop. Not tough for us, but the others seemed flummoxed.
"Kick!" the wrangler yelled, trying to get each rider to take his horse around the ring.
It was clear that the Smokin' Poles didn't understand, and neither did their horses, but it made my nephews and me feel better about our riding skills.
After lunch, we set out on a mountain-bike ride along some of the trails that surround the ranch. We sped along the narrow trails, dodging the menacing outstretched arms of cactuses growing toward the trails. Our guide, Casey, warned about other dangers, as well, including rattlesnakes and javelinas, small pig-like animals that run through the ranch in packs.
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