AVALON, Calif. — We had just watched "City Slickers" for the umpteenth time and were hankering to be back in the saddle again . . . on the trail at twilight. When we were little, my sister, Linda, and I were outspoken fans of all TV cowboys: Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger, to name a few. Some of the first movies we could remember were the Randolph Scott westerns our father dragged us to, although we preferred John Wayne.
But how to satisfy this fantasy now? Arizona was too far away. That was when it occurred to my sister, as she cranked up one of her many country tapes, that "Riders of the Purple Sage" author Zane Grey had once had a home on Catalina Island.
We took the Catalina Express boat from Long Beach to Avalon and arrived just before lunch as the sun was breaking through the clouds. Two cruise ships were already in port and the streets of Avalon were crammed with people. Vacationers of all ages lay in bronzed, oiled clumps on the beach in front of Crescent Avenue. The stores and restaurants were packed. The saltwater taffy machine in the window of Lloyd's of Avalon Candy Shop and Bakery, treasured relic of my childhood, was slowly pulling satin strands of taffy on rotating silver arms without ever letting it fall.
Our Wild West adventure started off just the way we had hoped, at the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel, the house built by the western writer in 1926. His study is now a guest room that looks out over Catalina Bay and a broad stretch of the Pacific beyond. But the choice room--"Purple Sage," once Mrs. Grey's bedroom--was ours. A large, two-bedded room (queen and studio twin) appropriately painted an eye-popping lavender, with private bath and plenty of faux cactus in pots for decoration, it supplied a full-on western atmosphere. The only drawback was its lack of air-conditioning, but for us the view more than made up for the slightly warm midafternoon.
Manager Laurie Carter told us that fans of the novelist used to climb the steep hillside up to the house to knock on Grey's window while he was working. He finally got fed up with it and built a second story onto the house to avoid them. Cowboy star Tom Mix, who appeared in the 1925 production of Grey's novel "Riders of the Purple Sage," lived on the hill just below.
The western flavor of the house is pervasive, with its adobe walls, open-beamed ceilings and a painted central-axis hallway bright with Indian motifs. The pool, built in the shape of an arrowhead, is a cool refuge when the sun turns hot.
Having checked in and stowed our gear, we were now ready to hit the trail. Catalina Stables on Avalon Canyon Road, the island's only horseback riding concession, offers half-hour and 1 1/4-hour rides back into the hills behind Avalon. The longer ride was $35 each; we saddled up and headed out. We had been warned that it could get hot in them thar' hills, but the weather turned contrary and a cloud cover blew in from the sea, which made the ride a pleasure. As we wound up the dirt track past densely covered hillsides, Kathy, our wrangler, cautioned us to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes and wild pigs.
Linda rode Dancer and I was mounted on Reba. We both hoped that the horses knew what they were doing since our trail lore is somewhere in the category of Billy Crystal and company. Reba proved skittish, while Linda's Dancer had been named by someone with a sense of humor. He sighed and groaned and plodded up the trail as if he were on his way to the last roundup.
The scenery on the trail, however, was worth these equine idiosyncrasies. We weaved around the hills on our trusty mounts, past a stream that feeds the golf course, until we came out on the road at the entrance to the Wrigley Memorial, a tower surrounded by the Botanical Gardens. "I'd take you the back way," Kathy told us, "but there are a lot of kids on vacation picnicking in there, and they might spook the horses." I was perfectly happy to ride down the road back to the stable, past the old Bird Park, whose aviary has been turned into a day-care center, known locally as the world's biggest "kid cage."
The next day we signed up for the 9 a.m. "Inland Motor Tour" of the island's interior. About 86% of the island--almost everything outside the city of Avalon--is overseen and protected by the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy. Our guide and driver, Ginny, who had raised six children in the interior, ran a tight three-hour bus trip and was a one-woman comedy act. Herds of American bison, brought over in the 1920s as background color for location shooting for some now-forgotten Hollywood Western, grazed on distant green hills.
At El Rancho Escondido (Hidden Ranch), a parcel in the middle of the island still owned by the Wrigley family, the ranch and stable managers put on a show, riding two of the 11 purebred Arabian horses that are housed in the ranch stables.