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Weekend Escape: Arizona

Heat is no obstacle for dedicated lopers riding in the desert

June 23, 1996|SHARON BOORSTIN | Boorstin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

TANQUE VERDE GUEST RANCH, Ariz. — How does the old saying go--"Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun?" Add two fanatical cowgirl-wannabes--my 17-year-old daughter, Julia, and me--to the list. Eager to take advantage of the nearly 20% discount on rates from May 1 to Sept. 30 at the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch, near Tucson, we recently set off to have a last fling at horseback riding and mother-and-daughter bonding before Julia graduated from high school and left for college. Fans of dude-ranch vacations, we had been to Tanque Verde six years ago and enjoyed it. But we had gone there at Christmastime, the Sonoran Desert was refreshingly cool. Going this time in mid-May, we knew we were in for some brutally hot weather.

"It's gonna be over 100 tomorrow," John, the burly ranch hand, said with a note of pride in his voice when he picked us up at the Tucson airport for the half-hour drive to the ranch. "But don't worry; out here it's dry heat." John was right; it was very hot but very dry. Which meant that when we stepped out of the air-conditioned airport terminal, we felt more like we were entering a sauna than a steam bath.

I was happy to find that the ranch hasn't changed much since we were here last. Dramatically situated in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains bordering Saguaro National Park the 390-acre Tanque Verde (green pool) was originally a cattle ranch dating back over 125 years. A dude ranch since 1928, it still retains much of its authentic Arizona-desert style: The 60 guest rooms and suites are set in pink-stucco casitas set around a handsome lodge that has massive adobe walls, saguaro-ribbed ceilings and pine-log frames. In addition to an indoor and outdoor pool, there are five tennis courts, a nature center and the largest guest riding stable in Arizona, according to the ranch. Our $225-a day standard room (prices include three meals daily, riding and all activities), was situated in the original ranch house, and was small compared to the newer room we'd stayed in on our last visit. But since there were just two of us this time (my husband and son had declined to come along, saying we were crazy to go horseback riding in this heat), Julia and I were content.

We arrived in time for the Friday night cookout, held in a grove of cottonwood trees. In addition to a bountiful salad buffet, there was a mesquite grill where cooks were barbecuing steaks and chicken. Among the hundred or so guests--many of whom were dressed in cowboy boots and colorful Western wear--were Germans, Swiss and, yes, Englishmen. John had told us that every year, more than one-third of Tanque Verde's guests are from Europe and Asia. They come for an Old West experience, often on their way to the Grand Canyon or Las Vegas, and most come in the blistering-hot summer.

The next morning, when we set off for a breakfast ride, the young man on the horse behind me, a Sean Penn look-alike, was speaking Italian with his companion. From the number of times I heard them exclaim, "Extradorinario!" I could tell they appreciated the desert scenery. In fact, the Sonoran Desert here is far more lush than other deserts I've seen, the sand all but obscured by green trunked palo verde trees, yellow-blossoming mesquite, spindly ocotillo and creosote bushes, not to mention the prickly pear, barrel and jumping-cholo cacti. And rising above them were stately saguaro cacti, their skyward-reaching arms crowned with sea anemone-like polyps, which opened to reveal delicate white flowers.

Though Julia and I were exhilarated by the breathtaking scenery, we weren't delighted to be stuck on a slow, walking-only ride. We'd come here to lope (canter) across the desert, like real cowboys. Because of the obvious insurance considerations, however, the ranch requires that all potential fast riders pass a lope check, which was scheduled for after breakfast. Since I hadn't been horseback riding in several years, I was as nervous as I'd been before my first driving test. All the fresh biscuits, scrambled eggs and blueberry pancakes (flipped by friendly ranch owner/host Bob Cote himself) couldn't take my mind off the upcoming lope check.

When the time came, six riders lined up their horses in the corral. Stephanie, a perky but no-nonsense wrangler, told us she would be looking for control and balance as, one by one, we loped on our horses. I was mounted on Whiskey, a horse whose dark brown coat was lightened by a fine layer of desert dust. Though far from the most spirited horse I've ever ridden, Whiskey was adequately responsive and came through. So did Julia's horse, Cisco, a former rodeo mount. To our surprise, Julia and I were the only riders who passed the lope check that day. Triumphant, we slathered our skin with SPF-50 sunscreen, gulped down a couple of glasses of water each, pressed our cowboy hats on tight and attached water bottles to our fanny packs. At 10:30 a.m., it was 97 degrees in the shade, but we were ready to ride.

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