Yippee ki-yay from Arizona - the heart of the American southwest
There are two things that every virgin cowboy should know before they mount up for the first time. Trouble was, I couldn’t remember either of them — and there I was, bouncing along on the back of a mare called Bonnie, riding through the Arizona desert.
“Ease up on them thar reins, pardner,” said the wrangler leading our string of ponies.
Easy for him to say. There’s not much else to hold on to when you’re 10 foot off the ground and breakfast is a recurring memory. I thought of all the cowboy movies I’d ever seen, mentally fast-forwarded past the saloon/gunfight bits and tried to remember the horse-whispering scenes.
“Woah Bonnie,” I begged. “Woah girl — please. Aww, Jaysus...”
Maybe Bonnie didn’t understand the Irish lilt. I tried a south-western drawl. “Hold up, hoss.”
Bonnie stopped. It had worked. I was horse-whispering! And that, dear reader, is how I guess the West was won.
You may have seen every cowboy movie from The Searchers to Hateful Eight, but nothing can really prepare you for the first time you ride a horse along a trail — Western-style. I was in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, doing a trail ride with Fort McDowell Adventures some 20 miles north of Phoenix. But the number was immaterial: once we’d left the sprawl of Scottsdale, the countryside came rushing up fast, and it was like all the western movies rolled into one.
You know that big cactus that features in every cowboy movie? It’s called a saguaro cactus, and they’re everywhere you turn in the Yavapai Nation — home of the Yavapai peoples, over whose land we were riding. You know those balls of tumbleweed that roll over the plain? They’re there too, tumbling on cue.
Most importantly, I’d bonded with Bonnie. She was eating out of my hand — when she wasn’t stopping to nibble at the desert grass and other green stuff. We rode up a hill, loped down the other side into a lush valley and soon we were splashing across the Verde River. Like they do in the movies! We passed some long-horn steer. Like they do in the movies! Saw some wild mustangs — a mare with a leggy foal in tow, drinking from the river under a shady overhang of desert willows. And I never saw that in the movies, but maybe I will someday.
Arizona, the heart of the American south west, is a big state — but really, it’s a state of dreams. To the north, of course, there’s the Grand Canyon; to the south there’s the border with Mexico (as yet unsullied by a wall); to the east there’s New Mexico; and to the west there’s California (and also the bright lights of Las Vegas, Nevada — just three hours away). So if you want a holiday that’s going to give you access to all these tastes of Americana, there’s no better place to make your base.
We were spending a bit of time smack dab in the centre of the state, in Scottsdale — which is technically a city, but really it’s an extension of the state capital of Phoenix — and we’d hitched our weary transatlantic wagon at the Marriott Camelback Inn. (The pool stays open until after sunset, so you can float on your back, watching the evening redness in the western skies until it fades to black and a million stars start twinkling overhead.)
Scottsdale shows the modern face of the southwest — it’s a sophisticated place: golf courses, Tesla showrooms, art galleries … everything a modern cowpoke could want. We stopped into the LDV Wine Gallery where they sell wines made with grapes from their own vineyard in southeastern Arizona and then pushed on to FnB — the culinary star of Scottsdale.
FnB stands for food and beverage — all locally sourced, all lovingly coaxed to an artform in the kitchens. How can you adequately describe a blackberry creme brulee, with just a touch of lavender and honey? Or the lamb tenderloin with snap peas, potatoes, artichokes and mint? Every single thing on the menu is graced with a foodie’s tender care, and it still keeps the southwestern charm that’s everywhere to be found in Arizona. We blessed the chef, and we moved on.
One hour from downtown Phoenix is the town of Wickenburg, which once proudly declared itself to be the ‘dude ranch capital of the world’. It’s a small town, with all of America’s famed small-town hospitality (remember: call all the women ma’ams and all the gents sirs). You’ll find the historic centre is littered with antique shops where browsing away an afternoon is the local sport, and the town is a great base from where to explore the outlying territories.
My own favourite outlying territory was just a 30-minute drive out of town, right in the middle of a huge saguaro cactus forest.
At first glance, Robson’s Ranch and Mining Camp looks like a ghost town that has jumped out of the side of a hill, but it once was a busy gold mine where hundreds of people laboured around the clock, pulling the precious ore out of the mountain — who knows, you may even be wearing some of it on your ring finger.
But time passed, the claim dried up, and the workers all upped sticks and left behind a main street, a general stores — everything a small community needs to live. And that settlement is still standing, dry and dusty and preserved in the Arizona sunshine, high on a hill and surrounded by a million cactus plants.
It eventually fell into the hands of Charles Robson — a man who cynics might call a hoarder, but I’d call an archivist of Americana. Though Robson himself has long passed away, as a result of his passion all the stores are filled with the ephemera of a long-gone American life — and in truth it’s become a walk-though time machine. The barber shop has a seat where Wyatt Earp once sat to have teeth pulled; the soda fountain tells of the chemical joys of a time when Coca-Cola had a very active ingredient; and the telegraph office still speaks in dots and dashes — though the spark only sounds in your imagination.
In the lean-tos out back are old Model Ts, ancient fire tenders, rusted monuments to industrial grandeur — but pride of place goes to a covered wagon from the 1800s, the sort the early white settlers used to cross the plains and form into circles when the residents would take insult at a horde of pale-faced migrants invading their ancestral homelands. And just to prove who was here first, higher up the mountain you’ll find some of the most extensive Yavapai Apache petroglyphs in the state. But if you’re going trekking to find them, bring plenty of water and leave just footprints.
Driving back to Wickenburg we stopped in at the Rancho de los Caballeros dude ranch to see how US presidents like to remember the Old West, and made time to visit the Double D western apparel store. Don’t know which one was more fun — but we saw a couple of roadrunners at the dude ranch. Beep beep!
By this stage we were feeling half-baked by Wickenburg’s dry heat, so we set off for the far-away hills, which turned out to be quite close — aiming for Prescott, which was little more than an hour away, through Yarnell and past the delightfully named Skull Valley.
The drive itself is worth the trip — a meandering road though dark forests of ponderosa pine and douglas fir, with the limestone of Mingus Mountain replacing the sandstone of the plain far below. And it is far below — more than a mile in fact — which meant a welcome lungful of cool air and a spectacular lightening show which forked through the sky.
We rolled into Prescott at the same time as the thunderclouds. Welcome rain, in big drops — so if you couldn’t wander the streets of the mile-high town, what better thing to do than drop in to the Palace Restaurant and Saloon, the “most elegant pleasure resort” on Whiskey Row, named for… well, you can figure that one out for yourself.
The saloon opened in 1877 and numbers Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Steve McQueen as satisfied customers. (Not at the same time, though.) It’s got dark wood panelling and a big brass rail along the bar counter. There’s actually a story about the counter. In 1900, when a fire swept through Whiskey Row, the locals interrupted their drinking just long enough to carry the ornately carved bar over the street to safety and kept tossing back the firewater as the saloon kept burning.
Prescott is full of such full-blooded American classics — and I don’t just mean the rodeo, which every local will tell you is the world’s oldest. It’s also worth stopping into the Hassayampa Hotel, a red-brick marvel with elaborate stained-glass doors and hand-painted ceiling beams. The building is on the US national register of historic places and exudes character — as befits a hotel that has hosted the likes of Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Will Rogers, DH Lawrence and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Prescott also boasts more antique shops per square foot than you’d shake a stick at — so if you’re looking for Navaho arrowheads, pre-Columbian pottery, vintage rock and roll dresses or campaign badges for every US president since Roosevelt, this is the place for you. By the way, the oddest curio I saw was an acoustic Gretsch guitar — with a whammy bar. I stood there with the guitar shop owner (who had just got it in that day), and we asked each other that question beloved of six-string philosophers everywhere: “Why?”
We left Prescott early the next day as we’d a train to catch — the Verde Canyon Railroad. It’s a classic diesel locomotive that runs back and forth along the Verde Canyon, above mesquite forests and a river that only begs you to dive in. Not recommended from a moving train though.
The train runs from Clarkdale to Perkinsville (where Sergio Leone shot the railroad depot scene for Once Upon a Time in the West) and as we were marveling at the rock faces and spectacular vistas, a member of the local eagle sanctuary came out on the viewing deck to show us an eagle whose broken wing he was helping mend. Talk about up close and personal with the raptors.
It was a long day, but we had planned to spend the evening at the nearby Blazin’ M Ranch in Cottonwood, so the day wasn’t done — not by a long shot. The Blazin’ M is a homely family show, and whimsical would be a good word to describe it. If you don’t have a sense of humour, you probably won’t get it — but let me try and explain. It’s a family friendly mini-western town, where you leave the internet and your skinny-lattes-to-go at the door and walk tall into a world that’s one part Little House on the Prairie, another part Roy Rogers, yet another part Dusty’s Trail – all washed down by some gravy and biscuits.
There’s lassoing, there’s pistol-firing, there’s home-made salsa from the chuck wagon, there’s cowboy singing and it’s as sweet as apple pie. I loved it — I think — but I can definitely promise you that you’ve never been anywhere like it in your life.
Kind of like Arizona itself, I guess.
Take Three: Top attractions
Musical Instrument Museum
Yes, this is what you think it is: an interactive museum where you wander through the aural cultures of the world. Every visitor gets a hi-tech pair of headphones which can tell what exhibit you’re gazing at, and automatically play the best of that nation’s traditional music. And after you’ve heard your fill, you can stare at Elvis or Lennon guitars, play a theremin or a set of gamelan gongs, or just strum a sitar. www.mim.org
The Arizona Biltmore
The register of guests at this historic hotel includes Marilyn Monroe, Irving Berlin (who wrote White Christmas while relaxing by the pool) and every US president since Herbert Hoover. It’s as stylish as you’d expect — after all, Frank Lloyd Wright was consulting architect — and their meatloaf is the best comfort food I’ve ever eaten. This sort of luxury doesn’t come cheap, but splash out. It’s worth it. See arizonabiltmore.com.
The Heard Museum
If you want to learn about who ruled the roost before the cowboys, this is ground zero. And ground zero is a fitting euphemism for the tragedy that befell the indigenous peoples of the American southwest — be they Apache, Hopi, Maricopa, Mojave, Navajo, or Tohono O’odham. And it’s not a ‘history’ museum, but a ‘living’ museum featuring both artifacts and contemporary art of native cultures. See heard.org.
America As You Like It has a seven-night fly-drive to Arizona, including two nights at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak, Phoenix, two nights at the JW Marriott Camelback, Scottsdale, one night at the Best Western Rancho Grande, Wickenburg, one night at the Iron Horse Inn, Cottonwood and one night at the Marriott Springhill Suites, Prescott from €1,675 per person.
This price is based on two people sharing and includes fully inclusive economy car hire and return Aer Lingus flights from Dublin via Boston.
To book, call 0044-208 742 8299 or visit americaasyoulikeit.com. For more information and to plan your trip to Arizona, visit visitarizona.com
Chateau Tumbleweed : chateautumbleweed.com
Fort McDowell Adventures: fortmcdowelladventures.com
Marriot Camelback Inn: marriott.co.uk
LDV Winery: ldvwinery.com
Robson’s Ranch and Mining Camp: westerndestinations.com
Rancho de los Caballeros: ranchodeloscaballeros.com
The Palace Restaurant saloon: historicpalace.com
Whisky Row: prescott.com/whiskey-row
Hassayampa Inn : hassayampainn.com/default-en.html
Verde Canyon Railroad: verdecanyonrr.com
Blazin M Ranch: blazinm.com
Heard Museum: heard.org
Sunday Indo Living